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Delay in Syria vote frees Obama to shift to hefty domestic agenda

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks alongside Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel (C) and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey (
U.S. President Barack Obama speaks alongside Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel (C) and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey (

By Caren Bohan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Putting off a decision on military strikes on Syria allows President Barack Obama to shift his attention back to a weighty domestic agenda for the fall that includes budget fights, immigration and selecting a new chairman of the Federal Reserve.

Obama and his aides have immersed themselves for a week and a half in an intensive effort to win support in Congress for U.S. military action in Syria after a suspected chemical weapons attack last month killed more than 1,400 people.

But the effort, which included meetings by Obama on Capitol Hill on Tuesday followed by his televised speech to Americans, seemed headed for an embarrassing defeat, with large numbers of both Democrats and Republicans expressing opposition.

The push for a vote on Syria - which has now been delayed - had threatened to crowd out the busy legislative agenda for the final three months of 2013 and drain Obama's political clout, making it harder for him to press his priorities.

But analysts said a proposal floated by Russia, which the Obama administration is now exploring, to place Syria's weapons under international control may allow Obama to emerge from a difficult dilemma with minimal political damage.

"He dodges a tough political situation this way," said John Pitney, professor of politics at Claremont McKenna College in California.

Pitney said the delay in the Syria vote removes a big burden for Obama, given that Americans, who overwhelmingly opposed military intervention in Syria, will now be able to shift their attention to other matters.

He said Obama could suffer some weakening of his leverage with Congress. The administration's "full court press" to try to persuade lawmakers to approve military force on Syria was heavily criticized and did not yield much success.

"He probably has suffered some damage in Congress because there are probably many people on (Capitol Hill) who have increasing doubts about the basic competence of the administration and that's a disadvantage in any kind of negotiation," Pitney said.

BUDGET BATTLES

Among Obama's most immediate challenges are two looming budget fights. By September 30, Congress and the president must agree on legislation to keep federal agencies funded or face a government shutdown.

Two weeks later, Congress must raise the limit on the country's ability to borrow or risk a possible debt default that could cause chaos in financial markets.

On the first budget showdown, Obama may be at a strategic advantage because of divisions among opposition Republicans about whether to use the spending bill to provoke a fight over Obama's signature health care law, known as Obamacare.

House Republican leaders are trying to rally the party around a temporary spending measure that would keep the government funded until December 15 but are facing resistance within their own caucus from some conservatives who want to cut off funding for Obamacare, even if it means a government shutdown.

The debt limit fight could end up going down to the wire and unnerving financial markets. Republicans want to use that standoff to extract concessions from the Democratic president, such as spending cuts and a delay in the health law. But Obama has said he has no intention of negotiating over the borrowing limit.

Another challenge for Obama will be reviving momentum for immigration reform. Sweeping legislation that would grant a path to citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants has passed the Democratic-led Senate but has been stalled in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.

Over the past week and half, lobbyists and other supporters of immigration reform have become worried that the Syria issue could doom the legislation in the House by limiting the amount of time lawmakers have to consider it.

But lobbyists are not ready to give up and have continued meeting with lawmakers to press the issue.

Some activists believe Obama could create pressure on Republicans to act by making greater use of the bully pulpit. The White House has sought to strike a balance between calling for action and giving Congress space to consider the issue.

Another pressing domestic matter will be picking a candidate to succeed Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke, whose term expires in January. Obama has been leaning toward Lawrence Summers, a former top White House aide and Treasury secretary, who is controversial within his own Democratic Party.

Any candidate for Fed chairman will require confirmation by the U.S. Senate.

On issues like the budget battles in which Obama will go toe-to-toe with Republicans, the Syria push will have little fallout for Obama, predicted Matt Bennett, senior vice president at Third Way, a center-left think tank.

Republicans showed a huge resistance to Obama's agenda well before the administration's effort to win congressional backing on Syria began to falter, Bennett noted. He said the time focused on Syria over the last week and half did nothing to change that dynamic.

"I certainly don't think the situation he's in today is markedly different from the one he faced a few weeks ago," Bennett said.

(Editing by Doina Chiacu)

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