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State of the Union 2016 goals: Will Congress work with Obama?

U.S. President Barack Obama (L) is greeted by Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R) as he arrives to deliver his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress in Washington, January 12, 2016.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

In his final State of the Union address Tuesday night, President Obama acknowledged that the disagreements between Democrats and Republicans on several issues may be too vast to overcome during his last year in office.

That didn't stop him, however, from listing the many agenda items that remain on his to-do list -- some of them more realistic than others.

Achievable goals?

At the very start of his speech, Mr. Obama named two bipartisan priorities -- criminal justice reform and helping people battling prescription drug abuse -- that he hopes to pursue with the help of Congress. "Who knows? We just might surprise the cynics again," he said.

Lawmakers in Congress have shown a remarkable level of bipartisan cooperation on the issue of criminal justice reform in the past year. In October, the Senate Judiciary Committee passed the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act. However, the bill has yet to go to the full Senate for a vote, and it faces opposition from some key players, like 2016 GOP candidate Ted Cruz.

Cruz was one of the few members of the Senate Judiciary Committee to vote against the bill in October, explaining he opposed it for a few reasons. The legislation goes "precisely backwards from where we should be going with respect to violent criminals with guns," he said. While he supports the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding citizens, he said "that when a violent criminal uses a gun, we should come down that criminal like a ton of bricks." He also expressed concern about the number of prisoners who would be eligible for release under the bill.

Even so, lawmakers who support the bill are optimistic Congress will pass some version of criminal justice reform. "This could be a legacy item for the president," conservative Sen. John Cornyn of Texas told reporters this week, the Hill reports. "I think this is an area where we could do some good. "

There's also bipartisan cooperation in Congress on the issue of battling prescription drug abuse. For instance, Republican Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio and Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island have introduced the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act, which Portman says takes a "bottom-up approach to this epidemic."

Meanwhile, the omnibus spending bill that Congress passed last month gives the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) $47 million explicitly for addressing the prescription drug and heroin epidemic. That includes $10 million for prevention efforts in up to 20 states.

President Obama on Tuesday night also asked Congress to approve the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement with 11 other nations. The deal, he said, will "open markets, protect workers and the environment, and advance American leadership in Asia."

The trade pact has opposition and support from both sides of the aisle, and getting it approved would likely take all year. Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, said a day earlier that approving the trade deal "is difficult but doable."

Tough goals

Mr. Obama talked at length about defeating the Islamic State on Tuesday night. "If this Congress is serious about winning this war, and wants to send a message to our troops and the world, you should finally authorize the use of military force against ISIL," he said. "Take a vote."

Members of Congress have shown a great deal of interest in passing a new Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) to officially authorize the war against ISIS. House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, earlier this month directed members of his conference to set up a series of discussions about the matter.

However, there is serious disagreement over what a new AUMF should look like. On Sunday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, suggested he won't be holding a vote on a new AUMF because he doesn't want a war authorization that would tie the hands of the next president. "I can't imagine that I would be voting for an authorization for the use of military force that Barack Obama would sign because the one he submitted for us to take a look at restricted his activities," he said on ABC.

The president also asked Congress to lift the Cuban embargo. "You want to consolidate our leadership and credibility in the hemisphere? Recognize that the Cold War is over," he said.

It's been more than a year since Mr. Obama took the historic step of thawing relations with Cuba, but Congress has shown little interest in lifting the embargo. As Marco Rubio, the Florida senator and 2016 candidate, said in November, "The embargo is codified and there can't be lifted until there's democracy in Cuba. We will execute and follow the law."

Mr. Obama on Tuesday night listed a whole slew of other proposals that he's promoted for years, only to face Republican pushback.

"Fixing a broken immigration system. Protecting our kids from gun violence. Equal pay for equal work, paid leave, raising the minimum wage," he said. "All these things still matter to hardworking families. They are still the right thing to do, and I will not let up until they get done."