By JULIE PACE
HONOLULU (AP) a¿¿ President Barack Obama returns to Washington this weekend eager to test whether a modest budget deal passed in the waning days of 2013 can spark bipartisan momentum on Capitol Hill. As he opens his sixth year in office, he also faces legacy-defining decisions on the future of government surveillance programs and the American-led war in Afghanistan.
Looming over it all will be the November congressional elections, Obama's last chance to stock Capitol Hill with more Democratic lawmakers who could help him expand his presidential playing field.
For Republicans, those contests are an opportunity to seize control of the Senate, which would render Obama a lame duck for his final two years in the White House.The wild card in 2014, for the White House and congressional Democrats facing re-election, will be the fate of the president's health care law. The website woes that tainted its launch have largely been resolved and enrollment has picked up. But the White House has been tight-lipped about who has enrolled, raising uncertainty about whether the insurance exchanges are on track to get the percentage of young and healthy people who are critical to keeping prices down. The health care questions aside, Obama spokesman Josh Earnest said the White House enters the new year buoyed by the "modest amount of legislative momentum" generated by the December budget deal. "We're hopeful Congress can build on it and make progress on other priorities where common ground exists," Earnest said. It won't take long to test that proposition, with debates on unemployment insurance, budget spending and the government's borrowing limit expected in quick succession in the opening weeks of the year. If all three can be resolved in drama-free fashion a¿¿ by Washington standards a¿¿ the White House believes it could create a more favorable atmosphere for Obama to pursue second-term priorities such as an immigration overhaul and a higher minimum wage, though both would still face steep odds.