Debt Ceiling, Immigration Confrontations Loom In Congress

There's much on the congressional agenda beyond Monday's Senate vote on jobless benefits. The debt ceiling and immigration are sure to be big issues, and President Obama will lay out his priorities in his State of the Union later in January. Political correspondent Mara Liasson talks with NPR's Rachel Martin about what to expect from Congress in the New Year.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

As we just heard, jobless benefits are a top priority for Congress when lawmakers get back to work tomorrow. But of course, there are more big issues to resolve. And joining us to run through the rest of the 2014 congressional agenda is NPR's political correspondent Mara Liasson. Hi, Mara.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Hi, Rachel.

MARTIN: So, Congress is going to take up jobless benefits first thing, then there's something called the debt ceiling that we're going to revisit again. This seems to be the legislative battle that just will not end.

LIASSON: The debt ceiling is a strange kind of perennial confrontation where Congress passes bills that borrow money but it neglects to raise its own credit limit. Usually, if you have a credit card, you can't charge anything if it's over your credit limit. But Congress is its own credit card company and it charges things all the time without raising its own credit limit. So, they have to raise the debt ceiling by sometime late this winter or else the country defaults on its debts.

MARTIN: What about immigration reform? Is that finally going to get some traction this year?

LIASSON: Well, as you know, immigration reform, a comprehensive bill that included a path to citizenship for the illegal immigrants already in the country, passed the Senate. It's stalled in the House. Recently, Speaker John Boehner made some indications that he wants to take it up again in little pieces. And the question is whether that will happen this year before the 2014 elections or, some Republicans think, might as just wait till the following Congress when they expect to have more Republican seats in the Senate and it's a little bit closer to the presidential election and the pressure on them will be much greater because they'll be facing a national electorate in 2016 that has a lot of Hispanic voters in it. But there are a lot of people who are very hopeful that something could get done before the 2014 elections. I just wouldn't hold your breath.

MARTIN: OK. And speaking of those midterms, later this month, President Obama delivers his State of the Union. And this speech will do a lot, I imagine, to set the stage for Democrats running in 2014. What do we expect to hear from him?

LIASSON: Well, I think we'll hear a lot about the theme that he started to explore, which is income inequality. He'll talk about raising the minimum wage. That's something that's very popular with Republican voters and Democrats. It's something that the Democrats would like to focus on, kind of an alternative to the Republican drumbeat to the Obamacare problems. Income inequality is a tough problem to solve. Even if you did all the things that would lay the stage for economic growth, you can still get divided growth. In other words, the spoils of growth are unequally divided. But I think you're going to hear a lot about that from the president. The big question is what among the things that he wants - investments in education, infrastructure, raising the minimum wage - can he actually accomplish this year with Republicans?

MARTIN: Do you expect Republicans are going to continue to attack Democrats and the president on the Affordable Care Act in these upcoming midterms?

LIASSON: I think that Republicans feel they've got their issue for the next midterm elections, and that is Obamacare. They are already hammering on those vulnerable red state incumbent senators, not just because they supported the president's health care reform law, but because they went out and they repeated that famous promise that, in the president's words, turned out to be inaccurate; that if you had a health plan that you liked you could keep it. The question is does it work for a solid year? In other words, next fall, is Obamacare just as unpopular as it is today and is that issue as potent for them? Democrats are hoping the economy improves, Obamacare gets a little bit more popular and they can turn their attention to other issues.

MARTIN: NPR's Mara Liasson. Thanks so much, Mara.

LIASSON: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: And you are listening to NPR News.

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