With November midterm elections looming, 2014 promises much more political catnip than 2013.
It's a year with a full roster of House, Senate and gubernatorial races, but 2014 is also likely to prove to be another critical period for the Affordable Care Act as an important deadline comes early and the Supreme Court takes up another aspect of the health law.
Here are some of the most important dates to watch:
Jan. 28 — At the end of the month, President Obama will deliver the fifth State of the Union speech of his presidency. Since the president was unable to achieve practically any of the agenda he outlined in last year's SOTU speech, he could largely recycle the 2013 address with its calls for overhauling immigration and and boosting the federal minimum wage. But he's even less likely to see Congress approve his priorities this time around. For one thing, it's a midterm election year, which means important and controversial pieces of legislation typically face bigger obstacles. As a result, much of the speech should be viewed as even more of a political wish list than usual — an attempt, as Democratic Party leader, to set the terms of the debate for the congressional elections.
March -- Sometime in March, the truce over the debt ceiling will end. And that means Democrats and Republicans will resume fighting about raising it. The exact timing of when all this will kick off is unclear since the Treasury Department has become accustomed to using accounting tricks to stave off hitting the limit and thus holding off a default. But expect debt-limit fever to start rising in March.
March 11 — A Florida special election will decide who succeeds the late Republican Rep. C.W. "Bill" Young in a competitive St. Petersburg-based seat. (In 2012, Obama won the district by 1.5 percentage points.) Whichever party wins will declare the victory a 2014 bellwether. Democrat Alex Sink, the state's former chief financial officer, will face the victor of a January Republican primary. That GOP primary includes David Jolly, a lobbyist who was once Young's legislative general counsel, state Rep. Kathleen Peters and Mark Bircher, a commercial airline pilot. The race also includes Libertarian Lucas Overby.
March 31 — Affordable Care Act open enrollment ends. With some exceptions, people who haven't obtained health insurance by this date will face a tax penalty. In political terms, both parties will use the overall open enrollment numbers to make their 2014 campaign arguments. While there's no way to know what the final open enrollment data will be, it's safe to predict Democrats will insist the numbers show that after a stumbling start, the law gained traction with Americans. And Republicans will point to the numbers as proof that the law is a disaster.
May — If things go according to plan, six months of talks between six world powers and Iran — designed to slow, if not stop the Iranian regime's progress toward obtaining a nuclear weapon — should end in May. Western negotiators are hoping that will lead to a larger agreement to rein in Iran's nuclear ambitions while the Iranians seek a weakening of punitive sanctions. Meanwhile, U.S.-assisted talks between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators also have a May deadline. Depending on how both the Iran and Mideast talks turn out, Obama may have foreign policy successes to boast of. Or not.
June — The Supreme Court is likely to deliver opinions in several big cases that could prominently figure in the election year debate. The court is expected to decide just when a president can make recess appointments, in a case that pits Obama against Senate Republicans. If Republicans win, expect them to use it to underscore their depiction of Obama as overreaching, imperious and anti-constitutional. The court is also expected to decide whether non-church-related employers can, for religious reasons, exclude contraception coverage from the health benefits they offer workers.
Nov. 4 — The midterm election. At the moment, the outlook for the House is that it will stay in Republican hands. The Senate, however, is less certain. The GOP needs a net gain of six seats to win control, and it just so happens there are four Senate Democrats who are viewed as very vulnerable because they represent states that Mitt Romney won in 2012. The Election Day outcome could determine just how much congressional leverage, if any, Obama has for the final two years of his presidency. Meanwhile, the numerous contests for governor and statehouse control will be closely watched for signs of any shifting political mood ahead of the 2016 presidential election.