Congress returns this week to face a list of daunting challenges. The House is taking up immigration reform; the farm bill setting the nation’s agricultural policy remains in limbo; battles loom over the budget and the debt ceiling; the sequester cuts continue even though we remain mired in mass unemployment. The New York Times reports this morning that these challenges may not be met, however, blaming Washington “gridlock” as far as the eye can see:

There is no guarantee that any of these issues will be dealt with.

That’s true. But the primary blame for this does not fall on generic “Washington gridlock” or the “inability of both sides to compromise,” as the usual bromides have it. The fault lies mainly with the Congressional GOP.

Here is a quote from a House conservative, given to my Post colleague Zachary Goldfarb for a story about how the Obama administration views the road ahead, that captures the state of play perfectly. As Goldfarb reports, the White House believes it has put Beltway scandal-palooza behind it, and now hopes to mount a major push on immigration and the economy, but House Republicans continue to stand in the way:

Obama continues to face strong opposition among congressional Republicans, particularly in the House. If he continues on his current path, some GOP lawmakers say, they will make it as difficult as possible.

“We’re going to continue to be very aggressive in serving as a check and balance against the Obama administration. That’s what the country said in November,” said Rep. Steve Scalise (La.), a conservative leader, referring to continued Republican control of the House. “We’re very far apart.”

This quote is more significant in what it says about the current situation than it first appears, so it’s worth unpacking a bit. The idea here seems to be that current House GOP conduct represents functional and ordinary “check and balance” behavior from the opposition, and that this is what the results of the last election show that the American people want. But here’s the reality.

On immigration, the current bill that is moving forward is not Obama’s bill; it passed the Senate by a wide bipartisan margin, and contains enormous concessions to conservatives in the way of border security. But there is still no sign that there is anything that can get a majority of House Republicans to sign on to a path to citizenship, even though poll after poll shows a majority of Americans support it. This is the real reason the two sides remain “far apart” on the issue. On Obamacare, the GOP’s gleeful, wholly unconstructive response to the delay in the employer mandate shows that Republican policy is still being dictated by a refusal to accept that the Affordable Care Act is the law of the land, as Jamelle Bouie has detailed. Indeed, the mandate delay is now being cited by some Republicans in the House as a reason to oppose immigration reform, because it shows Obama can’t be trusted, or something — as if there is anything that could get them to support any reform with citizenship in the first place.

On the debt ceiling, National Journal reports that House Republicans are drawing up a list of spending cuts they will demand in exchange for raising the debt ceiling. This, even though John Boehner has already admitted that the debt limit must be raised to avoid tanking the economy. This is hostage taking for the sake of hostage taking, and the pathological nature of it should not be sugar-coated. On the farm bill, the collapse of the measure already shows that Boehner can’t count on conservative support even for bills that contain major concessions to them (such as the farm bill’s $20 billion in cuts to food stamps). The response from conservatives will be to insist on still more spending cuts in the bill.

Yet in the view of Republicans like Steve Scalise, this sort of stuff represents typical opposition; indeed, it is exactly what the voters ordered last November when they comfortably reelected President Obama, expanded the Dems’ Senate majority, and even gave Dems the popular vote victory in the battle for the House. In one narrow sense, Scalise is right: The voters that support many House Republicans in safe districts insulated from the currents of national opinion apparently do want intransigent opposition to anything Obama and/or Dems support and fundamentalist devotion to bottomless spending cuts, whatever the consequences. But we shouldn’t gloss over the fact that the view among House Republicans and conservatives that this is their proper role — even if you accept that this is what their supporters want — is the primary reason for all the gridlock and dysfunction.

* NEW LIGHT SHED ON SECRET COURT’S NSA OPINIONS: Don’t miss Eric Lichtblau’s weekend expose revealing new details about the classified Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court opinions authorizing broad NSA surveillance. The opinions appear to create a secret body of law that effectively exempts broad government collection of data from the Fourth Amendment, without challenge from outside the government, though they apparently do not authorize examination of the data.

In theory, these revelations should prompt more calls in Congress for their declassification, so we can have the debate Obama says he wants about whether the proper liberty/security balance has been achieved. Obama himself could theoretically declassify them, too.

* BOEHNER FACES MAJOR DILEMMA ON FARM BILL: One thing to watch for in coming days: Speaker John Boehner is under pressure from Tea Partyers to cut the farm bill’s spending even more deeply than the current bill does, even though its $20 billion in cuts to food stamps already cost the bill Dem support, resulting in it crashing and burning in the House.

The farm bill debacle already reveals Boehner’s inability to control House conservatives and to pass major legislation without Dem support, so his handling of this will carry major implications for the coming debt ceiling and immigration battles.

* BOEHNER’S BIG CHOICE ON IMMIGRATION: Related to the above, the New York Times editorial board accurately frames Boehner’s immigration options:

Mr. Boehner has a choice. He can let reform go forward with bipartisan support — House Republicans and Democrats together could pass a good bill. This would infuriate the hotheads in his caucus but save the Republican Party from itself. Or he can stand back and let his party kill reform.

Yup. Boehner insists nothing will get a vote without the support of a majority of Republicans. That may prove to be true in the end, but there’s no reason to assume any decision has actually been made. Remember: If the base kills reform, it’s only because Boehner let it.

* GOP REP. RAUL LABRADOR ON IMMIGRATION REFORM: This quote is striking:

“My concern with the Senate bill is that they put the legalization of 11 million people ahead of security. The legalization happens first, and then the security happens second.”

Actually, the Senate bill allots billions in border security and includes E-Verify as a trigger before citizenship can happen. If this is truly the House GOP view of the Senate bill, then it again confirms there is nothing approaching real reform that can likely get the support of House Republicans.

* DEMS CLOSE TO TRIGGERING NUCLEAR OPTION? Politico reports an interesting detail: Senate Dem aides apparently are confident they have 51 votes to change the rules to eliminate the filibuster on executive nominations, but not judicial ones. The last time I checked into this, the prospects for getting majority Senate support for the nuke option were very much in doubt, though perhaps narrowing the focus to just executive nominations could be proving persuasive among Senate Dems resistant to changing the rules by simple majority.

 * OBAMACARE AD WARS HEAT UP: Obama’s political arm, Organizing for Action, is up with a major new ad buy touting the benefits of the Affordable Care Act, partly a response to a new campaign by the conservative Americans for Prosperity attacking the law.

The GOP vow to make Obamacare a liability for Dems in 2014 is somewhat undercut by the fact that enormous sums were wasted on attacks on the law in 2012, to no avail. But real world implementation problems are a very real possibility. Dems can criticize implementation where warranted while standing fully behind the law overall, as it appears they are doing, despite all the commentary to the contrary.

* AND TODAY’S PLUM READS:

Paul Krugman ponders the possibility that public outrage may not end up forcing policymakers to do the right thing and focus on jobs, leaving us trapped in a new normal of mass unemployment.

The Post on the continuation of sequestration cuts. Remember the sequester?

GOP Rep. Michael McCaul appears to believe the Senate immigration bill merely “threw candy” at the border. Again: Is there any level of security that can get House Republicans to accept citizenship?

Liz Cheney for Senate? As Steve Benen notes, her father seems to be gearing up to campaign for her, even as she insists she wants to run in her own right.

And this is from last week, but still: Jonathan Cohn has a very reasonable assessment on the real meaning of Obamacare’s employer mandate delay.

What else?

Greg Sargent writes The Plum Line blog, a reported opinion blog with a liberal slant -- what you might call “opinionated reporting” from the left.