A brief reprieve in the fiscal battles between President Obama and a divided Congress will allow two contentious and politically divisive domestic issues -- guns and immigration -- to take center stage in the national debate this spring.
The ability for Washington to find solutions to either issue will require the kind of bipartisan cooperation and common ground the president and congressional leaders have been unable to find on the budget.
In other words: It won't be easy.
The push to strengthen the nation's gun laws has been fueled by public pressure for legislative action in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Newtown, Conn., in December.
Renewed interest in overhauling the nation's immigration laws, and how or whether to create a path to citizenship for about 11 million undocumented residents, was sparked after the 2012 election saw Hispanic voters siding with Obama over GOP nominee Mitt Romney by 3-to-1.
Congress will turn to both issues this spring after approving competing budget resolutions and a short-term spending bill this week to avert a government shutdown through Sept. 30. The action temporarily lessens the intensity of the two-plus-year fiscal drama until mid- to late summer, when Congress will have to again vote on increasing the nation's borrowing authority.
Republicans in the House, led by Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia, plan a series of votes on "kitchen table"-type issues that address concerns of ordinary Americans. For example, after the upcoming two-week break, the House will take up a bill that would create more flexibility in comp time rules for government workers. Cantor calls the list of bills a "Making Life Work" agenda.
The majority leader began assembling a domestic agenda this year in preparation for the lull in fiscal battles. "We knew we were going to have all these fiscal cliffs, and then what?" spokesman Rory Cooper said.
The guns agenda will largely be set by the Democratic-controlled Senate, which is scheduled to take up gun-control provisions in April. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said the House will not consider gun legislation until the Senate passes a bill.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Thursday evening that the Senate bill will contain provisions that would strengthen federal penalties for gun trafficking and increase grants to fund school safety improvement. The bill will include language extending background checks to nearly every firearm purchase, but Reid said that portion may be replaced if senators can negotiate compromise language.
The National Rifle Association opposed early drafts of legislation to create a universal background check system, presenting a significant political obstacle to passing a bill in the Senate.
A ban on military-style assault weapons and high-capacity magazines faces certain defeat because it does not have the support to clear a 60-vote hurdle. Reid said the proposal probably won't even garner 40 votes in support, but it will get a vote anyway -- as Obama called for in his State of the Union.
"I have to get something on the floor, so we can have votes on that issue and the other issues that I've talked about. And that's what I'm going to try to do," Reid said. Senate floor votes on gun legislation could begin by the second week of April.
Both chambers have made more progress toward consensus on immigration. The Senate is likely to unveil a bill next month, and a bipartisan group of eight House lawmakers will probably unveil a framework for comprehensive immigration changes in April as well.
House GOP and Democratic leaders have been briefed on the plan. House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said it includes the outlines of a pathway to citizenship for immigrants who are in the country illegally. "They are close, they've made real progress," he said.
Contributing: Alan Gomez
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