As Senate Democrats praised President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address Tuesday night and urged their Republican colleagues to abandon partisanship, the GOP responded with a deep yawn and a little bit of hope.
Even before the president had finished speaking, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) issued a statement challenging Republicans to stop “wasting time with pointless political stunts. Republicans should join us in looking to the future instead of refighting old battles and pressing extreme, ideological plans.”
“I don’t think the politics of ‘no’ works for Republicans over the next two years,” Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) said.
Senate Republicans did find something to like in the speech, particularly Obama’s pledge to veto any bill that includes earmarks. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said he “liked a lot of what [the president] had to say.”
But for McConnell and many of his fellow Republicans, Obama did not go far enough on the issues of government spending, the federal deficit or the national debt, nor do they trust the president to follow through on even the portions of the address they found appealing.
“I agree the country does, and has always done, big things,” Senate Republican Conference Vice Chairman John Barrasso (Wyo.) said in reference to one of the closing lines of the president’s speech. “But every time he said ‘investment,’ to me that’s a concern about spending. We have rhetoric, and I want to see what the record does.”
“It’s nice gesture,” National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn (Texas) said in describing the tone of the address. “I think what really counts is what happens now. As always, he gave a nice speech. But it’s not so much what he says, it’s what gets done.”
In particular, Obama’s call for a five-year spending freeze fell flat, given Republicans’ view that the president has supported an unhealthy growth in government spending since assuming office. “It’s meaningless; I mean it’s just literally meaningless,” Sen. Mike Johanns (R-Neb.) said, adding that there wasn’t a lot for him to get “very excited about.”
Amid his policy proposals and calls for the American people to live up to the country’s greatness, Obama sprinkled in pleas for bipartisanship and civility on Capitol Hill.
Liberal-minded Senate Democrats found much to like in Obama’s proposals for investing in clean energy and infrastructure, and conservative Democrats latched onto his pledge to end earmarks and attack the deficit. Both ideological wings of the 53-member Democratic Conference were buoyed by Obama’s exhortation for both political parties to work together.
In keeping with that spirit, some Democrats declined to specifically say that the onus is on Republicans to move toward the Senate’s majority party. But they hinted that they’re hoping for such compromise in the 112th Congress.
“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.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.