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Obama’s liberal wish list for Congress likely to stall in election year

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If President Obama thought 2013 was an unproductive year for his agenda in Congress, he probably will enjoy 2014 even less.

Mr. Obama has criticized the current Congress for being on track to become "the most unproductive in history." As campaigning begins in earnest for the congressional midterm elections, the president plans to push partisan proposals, such as raising the minimum wage, that have little chance of becoming law but are intended to draw distinctions for voters.

"The minimum wage is a very important part of the Democratic argument on economic inequality," said Republican strategist John Feehery. "Republicans are vulnerable on that. It's going to pass the Senate, and then it's going to die a lonely death in the House."

Starting with the State of the Union address Jan. 28, expect to hear Mr. Obama talk a lot about raising the minimum wage from $7.25 per hour. He pitched the idea a year ago, but this time the president is endorsing a Democratic plan to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour — the first increase in six years.

The president, who is saddled with the worst job-approval ratings of his five-year presidency, also will renew his call in January to revive long-term unemployment benefits for 1.3 million Americans whose weekly payments expired in December. Doing so would cost taxpayers about $26 million through the end of the year.

Mr. Obama's themes of income equality, populism and an activist government are aimed at boosting the prospects of Democratic candidates who are hoping voters will overlook Republican criticism of Obamacare and its negative effects on many household budgets.

The president did get a bit of good economic news to end the year. The government announced Dec. 20 that growth in the third quarter was the strongest in nearly two years, although the news was largely lost in the coverage of the continuing implementation of Mr. Obama's signature health care law.

"Our businesses are positioned for new growth and new jobs," Mr. Obama said at his year-end news conference. "And I firmly believe that 2014 can be a breakthrough year for America."

Mr. Feehery said the president will try to get as much legislation through the Senate as possible in case Democrats lose control of the chamber to Republicans in the November elections.

"I think it's going to be a very bad election for Democrats," he said. "His approval ratings are down, he lost his credibility on Obamacare. It's really hard to fight back against that."

A spokesman for the Democratic National Committee said the administration has turned the corner on the Affordable Care Act, and he predicted that problems with the program's rollout would not hurt Democrats at the ballot box.

"The free-fall stopped, we started climbing back, and are actually positioned for 2014," DNC spokesman Mo Elleithee said in an email to supporters. "The ACA is as popular as it's ever been — and that's fine electorally."

Acting unilaterally

With prospects dim for Mr. Obama's agenda in Congress, the president is expected to issue more executive orders. Climate change is a likely target, but progressives also are pushing Mr. Obama to use his authority to pay employees of federal contractors more than the minimum wage.

Mr. Obama has issued 164 executive orders since January 2009, including a decree to stop the deportations of young illegal immigrants. He has averaged 33 executive orders per year but took only 19 such actions in 2013.

President George W. Bush issued 196 executive orders during his first five years in office, including more than a dozen in 2001 stemming from the 9/11 terrorist attacks. President Clinton issued 239 during his first five years in office.

Legislative battles

Other items in the president's inbox include a decision on whether to approve the Keystone XL pipeline, deadlines and administrative challenges for Obamacare, congressional authority to complete ambitious trade deals with the European Union and a group of Pacific Rim nations, and grinding foreign policy crises such as the civil war in Syria and the end of combat activity in Afghanistan.

The legislative battles in which Mr. Obama chooses to engage will be fought in the Senate, where majority Democrats have eliminated the filibuster for executive branch and judicial nominees. If Republicans win back control of the Senate in November, the president is unlikely to find them in an accommodating mood.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, said Democrats are trying to ram through proposals without regard to the minority party.

"The Senate rules are now just as optional to Washington Democrats as the Obamacare mandates they decide they don't like," Mr. McConnell said shortly before Congress adjourned for the year. "All of which obviously makes a mockery of our institutions and our laws, and all of which suggests that this is a majority that has zero confidence in its own ideas. This is a majority that can't allow the minority to have a meaningful say when it comes to nominees. This is a majority that won't allow members to offer amendments when it counts."

Meeting of the minds?

One of the few prospects for bipartisan achievement in 2014 could be immigration reform. Although Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, has said the House won't pass the Senate's comprehensive plan, some Republicans believe the House will approve at least some portions of the Senate bill.

"Anything that gets done on the legislative front will get done because Republicans want it, and I would put immigration in that category," Mr. Feehery said.

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