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Post-Vacation, Obama Faces Bitterly Divided Washington

WASHINGTON — President Obama reportedly enjoyed a nice respite with the family on Martha’s Vineyard over the past several days, but the pressing issues confronting him upon his return are unlikely to provide any similar sort of diversion.

From what promises to be a tense negotiation over a fiscal year 2014 spending plan to the deteriorating situation in Egypt, Obama will find himself facing anything but a vacation — with the possible exception of welcoming to the White House the undefeated 1972 Miami Dolphins. (Or at least most of them.)

The most important issue confronting the White House is the budget, or more likely a continuing resolution to keep the federal government’s doors open beyond the Oct. 1 starting date for the new fiscal year.

The White House and Congress have only six weeks to reach some resolution and the situation is further complicated by the government reaching its debt limit sometime in late October or earlier and the desire among some Republican lawmakers to defund Obamacare, a position that already has produced disagreements among congressional Republicans.

And there is the question about what to do, if anything, about sequestration, the automatic, across-the-board budget cuts adopted when lawmakers proved unable to reach an agreement on spending cuts two years ago. The Budget Control Act of 2011 imposed $85 billion in cuts last March and another $109 billion will be sliced at the outset of FY 2014.

Obama has called for an end to sequestration, asserting that the cuts represent a drag on the economy. Foes also are citing the news that 57,000 children will have to be eliminated from the Head Start rolls as a result.

Regardless, House Speaker John Boehner, R-OH, has consistently maintained that the president will have to accept even deeper budget cuts if he expects to attract GOP support for raising the debt limit above the current $16.7 trillion level. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew has prevailed upon lawmakers to send the White House a “clean” debt limit increase, asserting that anything else will harm the fragile economic recovery.

“We’re not going to raise the debt ceiling without real cuts in spending,” Boehner said late last month. “It’s as simple as that.”

Some Republicans already have expressed a willingness to shut the government down if the administration refuses to adopt additional austerity measures. Meanwhile, several lawmakers are equally insistent that any spending package defund Obamacare appropriations. Sen. Mike Lee, R-UT, is heading the offensive with support from like-minded Sen. Ted Cruz, R-TX, and Sen. Rand Paul, R-KY.

“The best way to delay Obamacare is to defund it,” Lee said. “Once Congress returns from the August work period, the House should act quickly to pass a continuing resolution that funds the government, but not Obamacare.  It is the only responsible course of action to protect Americans from this ill-conceived and poorly crafted policy before it is too late.”

Obama is likely to veto any funding measure that fails to provide money necessary for his top initiative. House and Senate GOP leaders are wary of the tactic, concerned that the party will be held responsible for any governmental shutdown. But various Tea Party organizations are vowing to fund primary challenges against those Republicans who don’t stand solidly against the program.

If all that wasn’t bad enough, Congress isn’t even scheduled to return to Washington until Sept. 9, giving both sides less than a month to develop a compromise.

Also on the economic front, Obama is scheduled soon to announce his choice to replace Ben Bernanke as chairman of the Federal Reserve, a move that already has created rumblings within Obama’s own Democratic Party, raising a red flag over the president’s ability to get his choice through Senate confirmation.

The White House has hinted that former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers and Federal Reserve Vice Chairwoman Janet Yellen are the two finalists. From all indications, Obama is leaning toward Summers, who is considered to be less of a regulatory hawk than Yellen. During his time as former President Bill Clinton’s money man, for instance, Summers advocated and successfully oversaw the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act which had imposed barriers between commercial and investment banks.

But 20 Senate Democrats are on the record supporting Yellen, setting the stage for a potential intra-party showdown.

Obama also has vowed to address the federal government’s surveillance policies after the administration was stung by recent revelations by Edward Snowden, a former contractor with the National Security Agency and onetime Central Intelligence Agency employee, who leaked details about snooping activities to the press.

Snowden, currently in Russia, revealed that the NSA was collecting telephone metadata, most of it involving American citizens, in an effort to thwart terrorist initiatives under Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which the White House maintains permits the National Security Agency to gather telephone company records that contain numbers that were dialed, the date and time when the call was placed, and the length of the connection.

The practice has been widely criticized by both parties and Obama has vowed to work with Congress to develop better guidelines.

“Given the scale of this program, I understand the concerns of those who would worry that it could be subject to abuse,” Obama said. “So after having a dialogue with members of Congress and civil libertarians, I believe that there are steps we can take to give the American people additional confidence that there are additional safeguards against abuse.”

Obama also continues to cajole lawmakers to pass an immigration reform bill. The Senate has acted, adopting a measure that strengthens border security, expands work visas and provides undocumented immigrants already in the country a path to citizenship. But the House is balking, particularly on the citizenship issue and the perception that the bill doesn’t go far enough in closing the border.

Press Secretary Jay Carney said:

The fact of the matter is, it is our hope and expectation that a comprehensive immigration reform bill will emerge from Congress that the President can sign, that meets his principles of significantly enhanced border security measures, of provisions in place to streamline and improve our legal immigration system, provisions in place that make sure that all of our businesses are playing by the same set of rules, and provisions in place that ensure that there is a pathway to citizenship that means going to the back of the line, paying fines and paying taxes, but has a clear pathway to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants in this country.

On foreign policy, the administration is watching the situation in Egypt where supporters of ousted President Mohamed Morsi, mostly members of the Muslim Brotherhood, are tangling with the country’s military, which has assumed control of the country.

Hundreds of protestors demanding Morsi’s reinstatement have been killed as troops under Defense Minister Abdel Fattah al-Sisi attempt to enforce order under the one-month emergency rule established after the unpopular but democratically elected president was removed from office. Concern is rising over the potential for civil war.

Sen. John McCain, R-AZ, and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-SC, visited the country last week and have called on the president to suspend U.S. aid, asserting in a statement that the military is “taking Egypt down a dark path, one that the United States cannot and should not travel with them.”

Thus far, the president has indicated he will continue the $1.3 billion in military aid provided annually to Egypt.