Freeze on partisanship nearly lasted through Obama speech

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 25, 2011 

WASHINGTON — Members of Congress gave President Barack Obama a warm reception Tuesday during his State of the Union address, but once they left the hall, they made it clear that they're bracing for some fierce partisan fights.

The tone during the speech in the unusually subdued House of Representative chamber hall was markedly different from past years.

Tea party favorite Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., chatted New York Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, who just won re-election. Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and John Kerry, D-Mass., both Vietnam veterans, sat together; each also lost the presidency in 2008 and 2004, respectively.

Giving the night a particularly somber hue was the empty seat in the ninth row between Reps. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., and Raul Grijalva, R-Ariz. It was left vacant to honor Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, R-Ariz., who was critically wounded in the Jan. 8 Tucson shootings.

Still, there were subtle signs that the harmony wouldn't last long — and that Obama's path to legislative success would be rocky. While the usual partisan cheering was absent for much of the speech, it surfaced toward the end when Obama praised the 2010 health care law.

Throughout the address, House Speaker John Boehner's office, as well as the national Republican Party, sent out a barrage of e-mail "alerts" that pointed out Republican differences with Democrats.

Once the speech was over, Democratic lawmakers offered praise — and digs at Republicans.

"Our country faces enormous challenges, and Republicans who choose obstruction for the sake of political gamesmanship will be held accountable," said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. "Voters are not interested in grandstanding — they want solutions like the ones we heard from the President tonight."

Some Democrats, though, didn't hear all they wanted.

Rep Maxine Waters, D-Calif., thought Obama delivered a good speech but expressed concern about his call to reduce corporate taxes.

"I'm not prepared to talk about corporate taxes at this point," Waters said after the speech. "I want to make sure that we don't become so frightened about being portrayed as anti-business that we roll over."

Republicans countered with skepticism and warnings to Obama that he won't have an easy time. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas., said Obama's remarks proved that he "missed the point of the election."

"We don't need more 'investment,' which is code for more spending," Cornyn said.

Added Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo.: "This speech should have been about jobs and too much government spending. Instead it was about 'investment,' which is just another word for more government spending."

Some Republicans wanted to hear more about the country's debt and deficit problems.

"The disappointment for me is that he didn't underscore the deep financial problem that this country has," said Jim Risch, R-Idaho. "Having said that, you certainly have to give him credit for at least wading into proposing, for instance, a five-year freeze" on non-defense domestic discretionary spending.

Their tone was no surprise. Soon after the Senate's day began Tuesday morning, Republican leader Mitch McConnell took to the Senate floor to say that he doesn't take much stock in what the president said — even before he said it.

"Speeches only last for as long as they're delivered," McConnell said. "Americans are more interested in what follows the speech. And in the case of this administration, Americans have good reason to be skeptical."

In the House of Representatives, Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., in an unusually partisan maneuver on the day of a State of the Union speech, said that the GOP will vote on fiscal 2011 spending cuts the week of Feb. 14 — the same time Obama is to unveil his fiscal 2012 budget.

Republican leaders are pushing for $60 billion in cuts, but more conservative members want $100 billion. Their list includes eliminating or slashing a host of programs popular with Democrats, such as legal services, Amtrak and funding for the arts.

Cantor conceded that such a vote "is a little out of the norm," but Republicans want to make a big political splash quickly. "This is how serious we are in delivering on our commitment to cut spending," he said.

(Barbara Barrett and Erika Bolstad contributed to this article.)

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