Republicans quickly criticized President Barack Obama’s $447 billion jobs package for emphasizing short-term measures over long-term reforms, but they cautioned that they need to see the details and held out hope they could work with the president on pieces of his plan.
The GOP’s response was unusually scattershot — hamstrung in part by the lack of details laid out by the president, particularly on how he intends to pay for the plan.
And, as Obama and Congressional Democrats repeatedly noted, many of the ideas he put forward — like a proposal to cut the payroll tax for employees and small businesses — have previously been backed by Republicans in one form or another.
House Republican leaders stressed the need to find common ground and suggested they could do so by individually voting on some proposals that both they and the president could agree on.
Majority Leader Eric Cantor singled out small-business tax relief and streamlining the process for infrastructure spending as two initiatives he could individually support.
“I’d certainly like to see us be able to peel off some of these ideas, put them on the floor, vote them across the floor, get the Senate to join us so we can actually get something to the president,” the Virginia Republican said.
Speaker John Boehner issued a conciliatory statement after the speech. The Ohio Republican said that Obama’s proposals “merit consideration” and that he hopes Obama considers GOP ideas as well.
“It’s my hope that we can work together to end the uncertainty facing families and small businesses, and create a better environment for long-term economic growth and private-sector job creation,” Boehner said.
Many GOP lawmakers fretted that the plan would blow a hole in the deficit despite Obama saying he would offer a week from Monday a deficit-cutting proposal that would more than pay for it. And they said many of the ideas seemed like recycled proposals that have been tried before without much success.
“It seemed a little desperate to me, unfortunately,” said Sen. John Cornyn (Texas), the Senate GOP’s campaign chief.
“Most of what he was recommending were things that were attempted before and frankly didn’t work. ... This is more designed to help his poll numbers more than anything else,” he added.
“To me it was very much a kickoff to his campaign,” said Sen. John Thune (S.D.), the No. 4 Senate Republican, who added that the proposal seemed like “Stimulus II.”
“This was a speech designed to play to an audience around the country to demonstrate that he’s out there, that he’s being decisive, that he’s leading, that he’s got a plan — all of which are big question marks,” Thune added.
Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), a member of the Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction, wasn’t sold.
“The select committee has a short period of time to tackle our overspending and deficit problems, and the bulk of the president’s proposals tonight would move us in the wrong direction,” the Pennsylvania Republican said.
Republicans weren’t the only ones wondering who would be paying the bill.
“I’m interested in how he’s going to pay for it all,” said Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.), who also sits on the deficit committee. “It adds to our challenge.”
But Sen. John Kerry, another panel member, said Obama had crafted his package to pass Congress, using ideas that in the past have appealed to both parties, a point repeatedly stressed by Obama during the speech. The Massachusetts Democrat said the committee should look at the ideas even as it looks at a broad deficit reduction package, which he said he hoped would be much larger than the $1.2 trillion minimum target.
“He’s given the committee a lot of food for thought,” the Maryland Democrat said. “There’s nothing inconsistent about the idea of putting people back to work ... and the idea of deficit reduction.”
Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.), who faces a re-election fight next year in an overwhelmingly Democratic state, talked positively of Obama’s speech and said he’d like to work with him on the payroll tax cut and other proposals, including boosting spending on infrastructure.
“I look forward to working with him. It’s time to unite,” Brown said. “Who doesn’t want good roads and bridges?”
But Sen. Joe Manchin, who is also up for re-election next year, didn’t sound excited.
“If spending money would fix our problems, we’d have no problems,” the West Virginia Democrat said, urging Obama to put the brakes on new regulations.
Rank-and-file Democrats and liberals, some of whom have grown frustrated with Obama, were cheered by the plan.
Liberal Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) praised Obama’s speech but said he’s concerned that his proposals won’t be large enough to tackle the enormous unemployment problem.
Conservatives, meanwhile, found little to like.
Freshman Sens. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.) ripped Obama in embargoed videos sent out before the president took the podium.
After the speech, Johnson said it failed to address the need for certainty for the business community.
“If you really want to get the economy going again and start creating jobs, he should repeal his entire agenda — I can’t think of a better boost of confidence. But I don’t think he’ll do that,” he said.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., carries a musket on stage as he speaks during the American Conservative Union's Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at National Harbor, Md., on Thursday March 6, 2014.