Battles on budget, healthcare loom for Obama

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WASHINGTON – After a good end to a not-so-good year, US President Barack Obama faces even tougher challenges in the months ahead as looming fights over spending and healthcare set the stage for a difficult 2012 re-election campaign.
When a new Congress convenes on Wednesday, Obama will be confronted for the first time by a Republican majority in the House of Representatives and a strengthened Republican minority in the Senate.
Whether he strikes deals with those newly powerful foes and continues the momentum built in December’s “lame-duck” Congress or becomes mired in another bout of legislative gridlock could be a critical factor in Obama’s prospects for a second term.
“The political climate is about to completely change for Obama, and how those budget and healthcare battles play out will really determine his status for the race in 2012,” said Steven Schier, a political analyst at Carleton College in Minnesota.
A burst of accomplishment in Congress during the final days of December produced a tax deal with Republicans, repeal of the ban on gays serving openly in the military and ratification of a new nuclear arms treaty with Russia. Those triumphs for Obama followed months of economic doldrums, stubbornly high unemployment and sinking approval ratings that culminated in November’s self-described election “shellacking.”
Before heading to Hawaii for his Christmas vacation, Obama said the achievements of December showed what could happen when both parties work together. He also acknowledged the bipartisan mood could be short-lived. “I’m not naive. I know there will be tough fights in the months ahead,” Obama said. “But my hope heading into the new year is that we can continue to heed the message of the American people and hold to a spirit of common purpose.”
Topping the agenda in the new Congress will be a clash over government spending and deficit reduction, with Republicans itching to push through dramatic spending cuts before a bill to fund the government expires on March 4. Obama and his fellow Democrats are likely to object to Republican priorities for proposed spending cuts of as much as $100 billion.