What to expect from politics in 2013: An off-year? Hardly

WASHINGTON - With no full slate of elections, 2013 may at first seem like it will be a political letdown after 2012’s frantic campaign pace.

Don't be discouraged, dear reader -- there is plenty to look forward to.

These issues will be critical in 2013:

Targeting guns

In light of the horrific shootings at Shady Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., a fresh look at gun laws will be downright unavoidable in the 113th Congress. Members of both parties, including gun-ownership supporter Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., have come out in favor of more restrictive gun laws.

The political will to start a serious national conversation about the role of guns in American life is palpable. The assault weapons ban, which included high-capacity magazines, expired in 2004. At the very least, Congress will reinstate it in an effort led by President Barack Obama.

Immigration preoccupation

Both Democrats and Republicans are fighting for the affection of the growing U.S. Hispanic population. The rapid expansion of this segment of the electorate, combined with the failure of Republicans to attract Hispanic voters in 2012, will fuel new and perhaps party-line breaking policies from the next generation of GOP leaders.

Meanwhile, Democrats will have to pay attention to holding their current sway with Hispanic voters. Growing immigrant groups will fuel the need to reform national policy and add a path to citizenship for those undocumented immigrants already in the United States.

Health care relapse

As the U.S. inches ever closer to full implementation of the 2010 Affordable Care Act, health care reform will come back into the public consciousness. State and federally operated insurance exchanges will come online and those without insurance on Jan. 1, 2014, will incur penalties.

As government agencies begin to roll out these initiatives, countless questions, problems and loopholes will begin to reveal themselves. It’s impossible to erect something as large as health insurance exchanges without hitting some speed bumps and 2013 will be the year we hit them at high speed. Additionally, Republicans will have to sort out where they stand after their “repeal and replace” mantra failed in 2012.

Bellwether biggies

Virginia is already a legitimate swing state in electoral terms, so the 2013 off-year governor’s race will be a critical bellwether for the 2014 midterm elections. Look for this to be the most expensive and divisive race in state history, likely between former Democratic National Committee Chair Terry McAuliffe and Republican Lt. Gov. Ken Cuccinelli.

Up in the Garden State, GOP Gov. Chris Christie may see a Democratic challenge from Newark Mayor Cory Booker. Unfortunately for the rising Democratic star, Christie is sitting comfortably with a 69 percent approval rating after his exemplary performance during Hurricane Sandy, according to a recent Monmouth University/Asbury Park Press poll.

Challenging Christie would be a tough slog for Booker so he may well wait until Christie makes an expected bid for the White House. Booker is a better bet to seek Sen. Frank Lautenberg’s seat. New Jersey and Virginia are the only two states that hold governor’s races on the off year.

Environmental impact

As Americans along the northeast coastline begin to clean up and rebuild after Hurricane Sandy, serious questions will begin to filter into the narrative of exactly how much rebuilding should be done.

If coastal areas will continue to be susceptible to powerful storms, should tax dollars be used continually to rebuild them? Many in Washington and beyond will argue that it may be time to rethink where we build homes and operate businesses.

Going nuclear

The filibuster has long been the bane of the majority and a critical tool in the bag of the minority in holding up legislation. Gridlock may well continue and prove frustrating enough for the Democratic majority to seriously consider changing filibuster rules, either doing away with the practice altogether or changing its mechanics, so that Senators actually have to be present to hold up legislation.

As it’s currently written, members can simply threaten to filibuster and the gears of government grind to a stop. Of course, everyone wants to use the "nuclear option" tool if they’re in the minority, so this would be a tough sell for some Democrats who remember being on the shallow side of 50 in the upper chamber.

Kicking the can

Congress will continue to be unable to come to a long-term solution surrounding the debt limit and will kick the can down the road into 2014.

The subject could come up as part of a larger solution to the so-called “fiscal cliff,” but any compromise between House Speaker John Boehner and the president will likely not become effective in time to alleviate the necessity to raise the ceiling again. The debt limit is due for another increase in mid-February. The national debt current stands at approximately $16.3 trillion.

Let the races begin

Yes, 2016 campaigns start this early. Late in 2013, be on the lookout for any politician traveling to New Hampshire or Iowa. Introductory trips are critical for any candidate looking to make a presidential run in 2016. Favorite candidates and serious conversation will not begin until late 2014, but the players will begin to emerge next year and fundraising is already in full swing.

On the Democratic side, former New York senator and current Secretary of State Hillary Clinton can’t be ruled out until she says otherwise. Maybe not even then. Also, look for Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley and N.Y. Gov. Andrew Cuomo to be involved in any 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue talk.

On the Republican end of the spectrum, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and current N.J. Gov. Chris Christie are on the radar, as well as Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Whoever emerges as the candidate for each party’s nomination will have put some considerable effort into 2013 to lay a solid foundation.

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