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U.S. President Barack Obama takes questions from reporters during a news conference at the White House in Washington, January 14, 2013.JONATHAN ERNST/Reuters

A week before his second inauguration, President Barack Obama is jockeying to outmanoeuvre Republicans in two brutal battles that could define his final mandate.

Confrontations over guns and government spending promise to make the recently ended "fiscal cliff" standoff look orderly, as Republicans seek to live down criticism from conservatives that they gave in too easily on Jan. 1 by allowing tax increases on the rich. Mr. Obama is warning the GOP to "act responsibly" or suffer the consequences.

The President's decision to devote the final press conference of his first term almost entirely to the looming fight over raising the $16.4-trillion (U.S.) federal debt ceiling – and, to a lesser extent, gun control – suggests that he may consider his successful navigation of those issues critical to achieving his other second-term priorities.

Mr. Obama sought on Monday to portray Republicans as irresponsible amid threats from GOP leaders that they could shut down the government or trigger a federal default unless the President agrees to big spending cuts.

Congress must raise the borrowing limit by early March in order to avoid a default by the U.S. Treasury and authorize new spending to keep the government running once current funding expires on March 27. In addition, Congress must figure out what to do about $110-billion in short-term spending cuts that were postponed for two months as part of the "fiscal cliff" deal. Allowing them to proceed would hurt growth.

Republicans "will not collect a ransom in exchange for not crashing the American economy," Mr. Obama said. "The financial well-being of the American people is not leverage to be used."

He suggested Republicans were being hypocritical in demanding big spending cuts in exchange for raising the debt ceiling, since they oppose defence cuts and have accused Mr. Obama of cutting Medicare as part of his health-care overhaul.

"The truth of the matter is that you can't meet their own criteria [for spending cuts] without drastically cutting Medicare, or having an impact on Medicaid, or affecting our defence spending," Mr. Obama said. "So, the math just doesn't add up."

On gun control, Mr. Obama was less categorical. After asking Vice-President Joe Biden to draft new proposals in the wake of last month's Newtown shooting – proposals that Mr. Obama said he received on Monday – the President was cautious about their prospects in the face of opposition from the gun lobby and even some Democrats.

"Will all of them get through this Congress? I don't know," Mr. Obama said of the proposals he plans to outline publicly later this week. "But … if there is a step we can take that will save even one child from what happened in Newtown, we should take that step."

While Mr. Obama favours a federal ban on assault weapons, including the AR-15 model used in the Newtown shooting, Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid suggested last week that it would be useless for the upper chamber to pursue such a measure as long as the Republican majority in the House opposes it.

"In the Senate, we're going to do what we think can get through the House," Mr. Reid said. "I'm not going to be going through a bunch of these gyrations just to say we've done something."

And pro-gun West Virginia Democratic Senator Joe Manchin, who expressed openness toward new gun-control measures immediately after the Newtown shooting, said Sunday that a "stand-alone" assault-weapons ban "will not go anywhere" in this Congress.