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Five biggest political stories of early 2013

As a big year in Washington D.C. winds down, five major stories are looming over a divided Congress as the New Year starts.

The political world in 2012 was dominated by two stories: the battle over health care and the general election in November.

After the smoke cleared, the Democrats and President Obama came out on top in both fights, but not without controversy.

The Supreme Court decision on the Affordable Care Act will be debated for years. And although Obama won a hard-fought campaign against Republican challenger Mitt Romney, the balance of power in Washington hasn't changed.

The Republicans control the House and the Democrats have a Senate majority. Neither has enough power to swing votes on major bills without some type of bipartisan consensus, which is lacking.

Here's a look at five big political stories on the horizon as a new Congress starts in 2013.

Fiscal cliff and debt ceiling

The complicated negotiations over taxes, spending, and borrowing have been stalled since November 2011, with no resolution in sight.

The fiscal cliff, a combination of legally mandated tax hikes and spending cuts, is set to start on January 1, as some unemployment benefits end and payroll taxes go up.

For now, a deal before 2013 seems highly unlikely. A deal in the first week of 2013 would give some GOP members a chance to say they voted for tax cuts, not tax hikes.

The debt ceiling, the legal limit on what the federal government can borrow to stay in business, will be hit by March 2013. So unless a new ceiling is part of the debt deal, expect a repeat of the cliff drama in two months.

Picking the president's cabinet

John Kerry will likely replace Hillary Clinton as secretary of state. But who will be the new defense and treasury secretaries? And will a political up-and-comer get a cabinet post as a prelude to the 2016 election?

Former GOP senator Chuck Hagel is the likely nominee to become the defense secretary, and in the logic of Washington, the Republicans are expected to heavily contest his nomination. Former top Pentagon official Michele Flournoy is another rumored candidate; she would be the first woman to be defense secretary.

There are also two contenders to lead the Treasury Department: Jack Lew and Kenneth Chenault.

For now, attorney general Eric Holder and other cabinet members are expected to stay in place. Deval Patrick's name keeps popping up in connection with several cabinet positions.

The gun debate 

The Obama administration has made it clear it will work with Democrats in Congress to introduce laws that ban assault weapons and some magazine clips.

That effort will likely take place as soon as a budget deal is reached and a task force led by Vice President Joe Biden will have recommendations at the end of January.

How this all plays out in the GOP-controlled House in February remains to be seen. And aside from two Supreme Court rulings, the legal landscape for gun-control laws remains unsettled.

The NRA has vowed to contest any national laws that restrict gun use.

State's rights and marijuana 

The decisions of Washington state and Colorado to legalize recreational marijuana use have far-reaching consequences.

For starters, the moves are a slap in the face to federal laws that label pot as a controlled substance. President Obama has not changed his opposition against the legalization of marijuana and didn't make any promises not to prosecute, but he did say in an interview with Barbara Walters that marijuana users in Washington and Colorado should not be a "top priority" for federal law enforcement.

Other states now have an incentive to pass similar laws to compete for tourism dollars, and America's allies in the drug war are confused by the whole issue.

Congress could also act on the issue by amending the laws that federally control marijuana use and distribution.

Same-sex marriage and the Supreme Court

In June, the Supreme Court might offer a ruling or two on the legality of same-sex marriages.

The court needs to decide if it has the legal standing to issue a ruling, so it's entirely possible a decision could be delayed in June. Or the court could issue a wide-ranging decision to settle the matter.

Given that the budget and gun debates should be over by March, the same-sex marriage debate has the potential to be the hottest issue on the political landscape for several months.

Scott Bomboy is editor-in-chief of the National Constitution Center

Follow the Constitution Center on Twitter @ConstitutionCtr