By Rosalind S. Helderman,
Published: January 20

As President Obama begins his second term, he faces a difficult, if familiar, conundrum: Much of the ambitious agenda he has laid out for the next four years requires action from a sometimes hostile Congress.

Rarely have a president and a Congress been as intractably at odds as Obama has been with the Republicans who control the House and hold the power to block his agenda with the filibuster in the Senate.

Rather than a moment of renewal, Monday’s public presidential swearing-in is likely to serve as only a brief cease-fire in the fights that have consumed the White House and Capitol Hill since Republicans swept the House two years ago.

At the core of Obama’s fractious relationship with Congress has been a running battle with Republicans over taxes and spending, and the pomp and circumstance of the inauguration will probably do little to ease the tensions that fuel that struggle.

The last dispute in that fight — the year-end clash over how to avoid the “fiscal cliff” — will bleed seamlessly into the next fight over whether to raise the nation’s $16.4 trillion borrowing limit.

A new proposal unveiled Friday by House Republican leaders to extend the nation’s borrowing authority for the next three months could offer both sides a bit of breathing room. But their goal was not to disengage from the spending battle but to boost GOP leverage as discussions roll into the spring.

What happens in the next 90 days on that front could prove critical to the fate of the rest of Obama’s legislative agenda, including attempts to reform the nation’s immigration system and institute sweeping new gun-control laws.

Second-term presidents usually enjoy a post-election glow of up to eight months, said James A. Thurber, a professor who studies Congress and the presidency at American University.

“He’ll have barely a month,” Thurber said of Obama, arguing that the debate over the fiscal cliff, in which Republicans unhappily agreed to allow taxes to rise on those making more than $450,000 a year, has left Washington with a toxic hangover.

“I don’t like the cliff analogy. I think it’s been more of an avalanche,” he said. “We’ve had an avalanche of work that really undermines his political capital and undermines the capacity to come together.”

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