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updated 3/24/2011 11:53:00 AM ET 2011-03-24T15:53:00

Returning home to some messy politics, President Barack Obama must contend with a battery of challenges, from a spending standoff that threatens to shut down the government to congressional angst over the U.S.-led war against Libya. Foreign crises rage across Africa and the Middle East, and Americans still want a faster improving economy from Obama too.

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The president left behind a wave of goodwill in Latin America as he shored up alliances that the White House said would prove pivotal for years to come.

Yet the timing made for political and logistical headaches, as his five-day trip to Brazil, Chile and El Salvador took place just as the United States and allies launched a U.N.-sanctioned assault against Moammar Gadhafi's menacing regime.

Now lawmakers are questioning the costs and objective of the military action there while voicing growing frustration that Obama didn't consult with Congress more thoroughly before authorizing the U.S. airstrikes. Republican Sen. John Cornyn encapsulated much Republican sentiment by asking in a tweet: "Is Congress going to assert its constitutional role or be a potted plant?"

Story: Obama, Libya and the authorization conflict

No sooner had Obama touched down on U.S. soil late Wednesday afternoon that Republican House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner issued him a blistering letter demanding more details about the steps ahead on Libya.

"I and many other members of the House of Representatives are troubled that U.S. military resources were committed to war without clearly defining for the American people, the Congress, and our troops what the mission in Libya is and what America's role is in achieving that mission," Boehner said.

Story: Boehner presses Obama to define Libya mission

The criticism comes just not from the right. Liberal Democratic Rep. Dennis Kucinich has said he intends to offer legislation to block the U.S. from funding military actions in Libya. Moderate Democratic Sen. Jim Webb, an authoritative voice on military issues as a former Navy secretary, said the U.S. strategy lacks clarity and the endpoint is undefined.

Obama, in news conferences from Santiago to San Salvador, has been adamant in saying the main U.S. military role will be limited and front-loaded as allies strive to keep Gadhafi from killing those seeking to oust him. Insisting the United States will soon play a supporting role, Obama told Univision in an interview: "The exit strategy will be executed this week."

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Obama will have more opportunities in the coming days to speak about the fast-changing Libya conflict, if he chooses. No specific address to the nation is planned.

Pressure to intervene on budget talks
That military challenge comes as the threat of a government shutdown looms again.

Federal operations are churning along on another temporary spending bill, this one expiring April 8. That means Obama has just over two weeks to help broker a deal to keep the government running for the six months left in the fiscal year. House Republicans don't want to budge from the $61 billion in steep cuts they've approved, but that won't fly in the Senate and Obama has threatened to veto it, leaving the path to compromise unclear.

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"I can't remember a more action-packed agenda, with two major, urgent items at the top of the list," said Norman Ornstein, who studies Congress and politics at the American Enterprise Institute. "Libya, of course, but with the added twist of harsh criticism of the president's failure to bring in Congress. And the budget battle, which I believe is much more likely than not to lead to a shutdown."

The pressure will be on Obama to intervene on the budget talks.

Also looming is a fight over the federal debt limit, which Democrats cannot increase without some Republican support in both the Senate and House. The administration has warned Congress that failing to raise the debt limit would lead to an unprecedented default on the national debt and wreck the national economic recovery.

Did Obama violate the Constitution with Libya military action?

The Treasury Department estimates the government will hit the $14.3 trillion debt ceiling sometime between April 15 and May 31. But Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell has warned that Republican senators would not vote to increase the federal debt limit unless Obama agreed to significant long-term budget savings that could include cost curbs for big entitlement programs.

One-year anniversary of health care law
Republican leaders also are pounding on Obama's policies at the one-year anniversary of his signature health care law. The law divides the nation just as much as it did a year ago.

The administration and its allies celebrated the anniversary, but it came and went without comment from the president.

Obama is operating in a shrinking window of governing until the politics of his 2012 re-election essentially halt cooperation in Washington.

Obama will try to pick right back up with his domestic agenda of cutting spending but spending more of it in targeted areas to make the country competitive in the longer term. He spent much of March emphasizing education, and that's about to resume: He will do a Univision-sponsored televised town hall about education at a Washington high school on Monday.

Although Libya dominated news coverage during the president's absence, it is a broader revolt in the Arab world that keeps bearing down on him. Support for Yemen's U.S.-backed president is crumbling among political allies. Tensions remain high in Bahrain, home to the U.S. Navy's 5th fleet. The White House now finds itself routinely condemning violent crackdowns on protests.

Story: Obama struggles to contain Libya backlash

And there's this: It won't be long before Obama is overseas again.

In two months, he'll be pushing the U.S. agenda on a trip to England, Ireland, Poland and France.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Obama defends Libya policy

  1. Closed captioning of: Obama defends Libya policy

    >>> president obama now back in washington from latin america a few hours earlier than he had planned. chief white house correspondent chuck todd has been traveling all along with the president, he too back at the white house tonight. chuck, what is the white house doing in the face of what is starting to be domestic criticism of this?

    >> reporter: that's right. look, they cut it short a little bit because there was a planned photo op , tour of mayan ruins and they cut that short in lieu of a longer briefing on libya. the white house is sensitive to this perception that during this five-day swing in latin america that somehow the president didn't look like he was on top of the libya situation. that said, within minutes that he landed on the ground, he was hit with bipartisan congressional criticism. speaker of the house john boehner sent the president a letter with what boehner says are a slew of unanswered questions on a mission he says is not clearly defined. former house speaker and leader of the democrats, nancy policy, put out a very tepid statement of support of the president's policies that an aide tells me was intended to send a message that, guess what, house democrats are on the verge of fracturing. so they have this public relations crisis on capitol hill and they are sensitive on what's going on on late-night comedy tv. despite it

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