Congress will give Obama a civil reception — for one night

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 24, 2011 

WASHINGTON — Lawmakers plan to be polite and civil Tuesday night as President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address, but once it's over, all signs point to sharp partisan divides over spending, health care and virtually every other major issue.

Obama's speech to a joint session of Congress, starting at 9 p.m. EST, will be filled with reminders of Washington's efforts to create a calmer political climate in the wake of the Tucson shootings Jan. 8 that left Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., critically wounded, six people dead and 12 others injured.

Republicans and Democrats plan to break tradition Tuesday night by sitting alongside colleagues from the other party, instead of in partisan blocs.

"It's a symbol; a way we can show we can reason together," said Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., a staunch conservative who helped lead the recent House of Representatives tribute to Giffords.

Daniel Hernandez, a Giffords intern who helped save the congresswoman after she was shot, will be seated with first lady Michelle Obama. So will the family of 9-year-old Christina Taylor Green, who died in the rampage, and Dr. Peter Rhee, the head of trauma at University Medical Center in Tucson.

Obama, speaking for the first time in his two-year-old presidency to a House controlled by Republicans, plans to emphasize healing the economy and working together. Republicans have a 242 to 193 majority in the House, and Democrats control 53 of the Senate's 100 seats.

"We're not going to have a debate in Washington about whether we need to make some changes and whether we need to control spending. We're going to have, hopefully, a bipartisan discussion and work together on how we go about doing that," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Monday.

The more consequential question about the speech involves its aftermath, whether the symbolic bonding in the chamber for the speech will mean much once policy deliberations begin in earnest Wednesday.

Early signals aren't positive.

Bill Frenzel, a former centrist Republican congressman from Minnesota who's now a political analyst at the Brookings Institution, a center-left policy research center, predicted that the new mood won't overcome strong partisan disagreements.

"They won't get anywhere," he said.

Republicans say they want strong, specific commitments from Obama — and evidence that he's distancing himself from liberal Democrats.

"Is he going to decouple himself from what we've seen over the last two years and what he has been selling?" House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., asked Monday. "Will he continue selling that which he did or will there be a new direction? The success of this Congress will rest on this question and, frankly, the outcome of the election in 2012."

Conservatives hope that Obama breaks visibly with liberals.

"He has to do something palpable. He needs to make (an overture) towards Republicans that creates a 'wow' factor," said Michael Franc, the vice president for government relations at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative policy-research center. "He has to back it up to the point that his base says, 'Wait a minute, we didn't sign on to this.' "

That appears unlikely.

Obama's expected to discuss his "competitiveness agenda," which includes boosting investments in infrastructure, education and innovation. But, Gibbs warned, "I don't think you'll see a laundry list of issues."

Lawmakers who are aligned with the grass-roots "tea party" movement will be watching particularly closely. After House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., offers the official GOP response to the president Tuesday night, one leading group, the Tea Party Express, will have Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., offer a separate response broadcast on live streaming video at www.TeaPartyExpress.org or at www.TeaPartyHD.com.

"The tea party wants to stay independent of political parties," said Tea Party Express co-founder Sal Russo of Sacramento, Calif.

Some Democrats are concerned that Obama could go too far in appealing to Republicans, centrists and independents.

Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-Mo., for instance, was concerned that the administration may cut the Community Development Block Grant program, an important source of funding for neighborhood projects through the country.

"There's talk that budget officials want to cut it," he said. However, Obama's not expected to get that detailed Tuesday night. He'll detail his budget for fiscal 2012 the week of Feb. 14.

The Democrats' immediate worry is about potential cuts this year, in fiscal 2011. The conservative Republican Study Committee, which includes most House GOP members, called last week for $80 billion in savings by Sept. 30.

The group would roll spending back to 2008 levels on everything but defense, homeland security and veterans. Cantor said he "looks forward to these cuts and others being brought to the floor for an up-or-down vote."

The Republican Study Committee has proposed cutting $2.5 trillion in federal spending over the next 10 years. That would include sharply cutting or eliminating funding for some popular programs that Democrats support, such as the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the Legal Services Corp. and National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities. House Republicans would roll back most spending to 2008-09 levels — and perhaps in some cases 2006 levels — and freeze it there.

Republicans are also eager to replace the 2010 health care law, though they don't have a specific alternative. The House voted last week, on a largely party-line vote, to repeal it, though that effort is expected to die in the Democratic-run Senate. Even so, the House Budget Committee plans to explore the fiscal impact of the law, one of the administration's signature achievements.

Democrats vow that none of this will get far, and that later this year, everyone is going to have to find ways to compromise.

"They repealed the health care bill, but the bill is not repealed," said Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn. "Really, it's political theater."

(Steven Thomma contributed to this article.)

ON THE WEB

State of the Union history

Republican plan to reduce congressional budgets

Rep. Ryan's road map

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