Las Vegas Sun

November 29, 2015

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Congress has run out of fiscal emergencies to blame inaction on

President Barack Obama arrived at the White House in 2009 brandishing a long list of major policy priorities for Congress. But with the notable exceptions of health care and Wall Street reform, most have run into a classic budget block.

A seemingly endless cycle of fiscal cliffs, debt limits, government shutdowns and tax code has forced lawmakers to table discussions about immigration, energy and gun control while they fuss over yanking the country back from the latest ledge of budgetary destruction.

But this fiscal year, only one such hurdle remains — a debt-ceiling deadline of May 18 — and then an entire summer before Congress has to face the music about funding fiscal 2014.

To think what Congress, freed from its customary fiscal shackles, could do with that time.

Or maybe not so much.

“The budget is on hold — but I wouldn’t say it’s solved or anything,” said Eric Herzik, political science professor at UNR. “They could maybe take up something (else). But it has to be something both sides want to talk about.”

In Nevada, political experts aren’t putting too much faith in the breathing room lawmakers afforded themselves, save for in one area: Immigration.

“This creates a policy space for immigration,” said David Damore, political science professor at UNLV. “It’s hard to think that they could do two things. ... If anything’s going to move, it’s going to be immigration.”

Immigration has been on the president’s to-do list since the day he stepped into office. But its potential moment is as much due to a shift in the political climate as the available months on the calendar. Since the 2012 election, Republicans and Democrats, inspired by the surging Latino electorate, have both been pushing for a resolution on immigration reform.

No other issue is as primed for the political spotlight. Gun control will have its turn in the Senate starting this week, but reforms that stand a fighting chance of clearing the full Congress are far short of sweeping. Meanwhile, coming to a compromise on matters such as energy, tax reform and the elusive "grand bargain" will likely require more than the three months of working summer Congress has at its disposal, particularly considering the distraction posed by the electoral calendar.

Midterm elections are coming.

“The Republicans don’t want to necessarily see the Democrats be successful ... though I imagine publicly they would deny it up and down,” said Fred Lokken, professor of political science at Truckee Meadows Community College. “If (the government) can stimulate the economy, and we see resolution of major issues that have been in front of the body politic for so long, why would you vote for a Republican in 2014 or 2016?”

Lokken mused that after 2014, there would be new breathing room to get back to deal-making on big issues.

But then the peak years of Obama’s presidency would be past.

“The most productive period of any president in his second term is his first year,” Lokken said.

That raises the stakes on this summer as one of the last clear windows of opportunity lawmakers have to seal important deals, such as on immigration. But some wonder whether a Congress so used to discord can hop to it and respond to a political moment in a timely manner.

Herzik says he’s “not optimistic” that Congress can realize immigration reform during the coming political oasis, before lawmakers have to dive into budget battles again.

“Yeah, they’ll come together and say, ‘Oh yeah we need to work on this,’ and then at the end ... business as usual,” Herzik said, continuing with his prediction. “That’s the pessimistic view. But it’s warranted until they show they can actually do something.”

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