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President Barack Obama leaves the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, Thursday, Oct. 17, 2013. His signature health-care act was left untouched despite a last-ditch Republican effort to block or modify the law. (Charles Dharapak/AP)
President Barack Obama leaves the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, Thursday, Oct. 17, 2013. His signature health-care act was left untouched despite a last-ditch Republican effort to block or modify the law. (Charles Dharapak/AP)

Obama looks to leave debt fight behind Add to ...

U.S. President Barack Obama stood firm in an epic confrontation with Republicans over his health-care law but faces an uphill battle to transform that victory into wins on other fronts.

The deal signed into law by Mr. Obama early Thursday to lift the debt ceiling and reopen the government left his signature health-care reforms untouched and his opponents in a state of disarray.

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What’s less clear is whether the upheaval will shake free new opportunities for compromise. In remarks on Thursday, Mr. Obama called for lawmakers to work together and eschew the kind of brinkmanship that has dominated Washington over the past month.

“Nothing has done more damage to America’s credibility in the world, our standing with other countries, than the spectacle that we’ve seen these past several weeks,” said Mr. Obama. “It’s encouraged our enemies. It’s emboldened our competitors. And it’s depressed our friends who look to us for steady leadership.”

He reproached the partisanship in Washington that has stalled legislative efforts to improve the lives of Americans. “How business is done in this town has to change,” he added. “Because we’ve all got a lot of work to do on behalf of the American people – and that includes the hard work of regaining their trust.”

Mr. Obama named three areas where he wants to make rapid progress: reaching agreement on a budget; reforming the country’s immigration system; and passing a bill on agriculture spending and nutritional assistance to poorer Americans.

All three issues have proved highly contentious and have run into some of the same dynamics that characterized the recent government shutdown: Hard-won bipartisan compromises can emerge in the U.S. Senate, but are rare in the deeply divided House of Representatives.

Senate and House leaders from both parties met for breakfast on Thursday morning to discuss the upcoming budget negotiations and made sure to sound a constructive tone. It was a “very good conversation,” said Paul Ryan, a Republican congressman and the former running mate for presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

For now, Republicans are trying to regroup after a bruising several weeks that saw their party slide to a historically low approval rating. “There’s no question that if you had to pick a loser I would say Republicans,” said Carlos Gutierrez, a former Secretary of Commerce under President George W. Bush. “They had a crazy suicidal strategy that could not win.”

Still, Mr. Gutierrez did not think the crisis opened new avenues for co-operation. “Nothing has changed. The same people are there,” he said.

While the deep distrust and policy disagreements that set the stage for the most recent crisis remain, some experts did see the potential for progress. The 11th-hour deal to lift the debt ceiling will initiate introspection among the ranks of moderate Republicans, predicted a former senior White House official.

“Are they willing to go along with these tactics in the future?” asked the official. “How do they strengthen other voices in the caucus? Should they have another agenda that’s fundamentally affirmative?”

The most pressing item for lawmakers is reaching a longer-term agreement on federal government spending. Such authorization now expires on Jan. 15 under the deal recently reached by lawmakers; the government’s ability to borrow, meanwhile, is set to reach its limit somewhere around Feb. 7.

“There are paths forward,” said Kenneth Baer, a former associate director in the Office of Management and Budget under Mr. Obama. “The prospects are totally contingent on the Republicans understanding what it means to negotiate. It’s actually substantively different from political tantrum-throwing or political hostage-taking.”

Experts sounded cautiously optimistic that lawmakers would somehow avoid repeating the extremes of the most recent showdown three months from now. While the two sides might not be able to reach a far-reaching pact on long-term spending and revenues, there is room for minor reforms to the tax code and to federal programs like Social Security, said Lanhee Chen, who teaches public policy at Stanford University and is a former adviser to Mr. Romney.

Meanwhile, Mr. Obama’s quest to push ahead with immigration reform faces steep hurdles, analysts said. The Senate passed its version of a comprehensive overhaul earlier this year but the Republican leadership in the House has refused to negotiate using that framework, saying they prefer a piecemeal approach.

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