“I think if this speech stood for anything, it stood for the notion that scoring political points needs to become less important around here; these ‘gotcha’ moments where everyone circles around each other trying to trap them into some kind of difficult vote or position,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), who is up for re-election next year. “There’s going to be some difficult decisions to make if we’re going to do the right thing, and we all need to join together and share that burden.”
“I thought it was the right theme, which was basically a nonpartisan theme that we’re Americans,” Sen. Benjamin Cardin (D-Md.) said about Obama’s address.
But even sitting with Members of the other party didn’t keep Senators from putting a partisan spin on a speech that, to some extent, is always a political Rorschach test. However, some proposals within the State of the Union flipped the usual partisan divide.
Republicans generally cheered Obama’s call for medical malpractice reform, while Democrats ripped the idea. McCaskill said it’s not the federal government’s job to tell states who can go to state courthouses.
Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) applauded, saying the move was an unexpected turn in a conservative direction for Obama. He wasn’t surprised that Democrats, including Reid, didn’t clap.
Reid’s “an old lawyer, not above having a contingency fee,” Sessions joked.
Perhaps Obama’s most emphatic statement of the night was his threat to veto any bills containing earmarks — a vow that puts him at odds with Senate Democratic leaders but overjoyed some Republican lawmakers.
Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), the No. 3 Democrat, said he doesn’t know what Senate Democrats will do about the threat. “My attitude is reform it, don’t end it,” he said.
But McCaskill, who has opposed earmarks and has proposed a series of bipartisan reforms to rein in spending, was ecstatic. “I couldn’t be more happy about the earmark proposal,” she said. The Missouri Democrat called earmarks a “symptom of the problem,” but treating the symptom will make the patient feel better.
If there was one area of broad bipartisan support, it was for the section of the speech about education. Obama was short on specifics, but Senators on both sides of the aisle are eyeing an update to the No Child Left Behind Act as an area where the two parties can work together.
“I was surprised but pleased that the president spent so much time talking about education,” Sen. Susan Collins said. Updating No Child is years overdue, the Maine Republican added.
Reviews of Obama’s proposal to reform immigration laws, meanwhile, failed to resonate with the GOP. Cornyn said he and other Republicans would be prepared to work with Obama on the issue if he makes it a priority, but he said that Obama didn’t break much new ground.
Sessions was even harsher.
“He completely misses the point,” the Alabama Republican said. It’s the president’s responsibility to deal with the illegal crossings at the border, and he’s failed to do so, Sessions said.
Vice President Joe Biden waits to conduct a mock swearing-in ceremony with Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, in the Capitol's Old Senate Chamber, December 2, 2014. Schatz was sworn in to serve the remainder of his term since he was appointed to the seat after Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, passed away.