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New Congress will take fresh crack at old problems

A statue of the United States first President, George Washington, is seen under the Capitol dome in Washington January 2, 2013. REUTERS/Gary
A statue of the United States first President, George Washington, is seen under the Capitol dome in Washington January 2, 2013. REUTERS/Gary

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The new 113th U.S. Congress, which convenes on Thursday, is set to take a fresh crack at a number of old, and highly contentious, issues, such as gun control, immigration, the record debt, tax reform and the farm bill.

Here's a look:

GUN CONTROL

President Barack Obama vows to crack down on gun violence in the wake of the school massacre last month in Newtown, Connecticut, the latest in a series of shooting rampages over the past decade.

According to a USA Today/Gallup Poll, 58 percent of Americans now back tougher gun laws, but 51 percent oppose Obama's call to outlaw so-called assault weapons.

A sharply divided Congress is awaiting a broad review of gun violence headed by Vice President Joe Biden.

IMMIGRATION

Hispanic voters last year helped Obama win a second term and Democrats to increase their clout in Congress.

Republicans took notice and want to win Hispanic support in the 2014 elections. One step toward that goal would be for Republicans to become more open to immigration reform.

The big question is how far Republicans would go to provide a path toward citizenship for illegal immigrants, estimated to number up to 12 million in the United States.

SEQUESTRATION

The White House and Congress managed to cut a deal on the "fiscal cliff" by agreeing to a two-month delay to sequestration - automatic spending cuts that were set to take effect on January 1.

Obama and lawmakers now have until March 1 to reach agreement on about $85 billion in spending reductions. If they do not, they will see across-the-board ones kick in, about evenly split between military and domestic programs.

DEBT LIMIT

Obama and Congress likely have until the end of February to raise the U.S. debt limit, now at $16.4 trillion.

Failure to do so would result in an unprecedented U.S. default, a move likely to rattle financial markets worldwide.

Obama says he will refuse to allow the debt limit to become a political bargaining tool again.

But Republicans do not seem be willing to raise it without extracting major spending cuts, mostly from government programs such as Social Security and Medicare.

FARM BILL

Congress gave itself a new deadline, September 30, to complete an overdue five-year, $500 billion farm bill that withered in election-year acrimony in 2012.

The House version proposed the deepest cuts in a generation for food stamps for the poor. But fiscal conservatives want more cuts in food stamps as well as farm subsidies.

The bills produced last year by the House and Senate agriculture committees would have cut between $23 billion and $35 billion. They will dig deeper in the months ahead.

It will be the first time Congress began work on a farm bill in one session and had to refile it in the new session.

HURRICANE SANDY RELIEF

Under pressure from fellow Republicans inside and outside of Congress, including New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, the Republican-led House is expected to move quickly in coming weeks to approve a long-delayed relief package for victims of superstorm Sandy in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.

SENATE FILIBUSTER

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is fed up with Republican procedural roadblocks commonly known as filibusters.

So Reid, to the outrage of Republicans, vows to try to change the rules - unless both sides enter some sort of an agreement to make the chamber work more efficiently.

VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN

Obama's fellow Democrats will take another crack at trying to renew the 1994 Violence Against Women Act, which was championed nearly two decades ago by Biden, then a senator.

The measure is designed to combat domestic abuse, but became a legislative vehicle in Congress last year for Democrats and Republicans to jockey for political position.

(Reporting By Thomas Ferraro; Editing by Marilyn W. Thompson and Peter Cooney)

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