State of the Union: Obama urges bipartisanship, can he deliver?

President Obama's State of the Union speech emphasized cooperation and policies favored by both Republicans and Democrats, but offered no solutions for breaking partisan gridlock in Congress.

Susan Walsh/AP
Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) gives a thumbs-up on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday before President Barack Obama's State of the Union address.

In a State of the Union address with a Clintonesque range of policy initiatives, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle in Congress found moments to cheer:

“Jobs must be our number one focus in 2010.” Check. “We will double our exports over the next five year.” Check. “I do not accept second place for the United States of America.” Check. “In the 21st century, one of the best anti-poverty programs is a world-class education.” Check.

Republicans also leapt to their feet at President Obama’s call to build “a new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants in this country” and make “tough decisions about opening new offshore areas for oil and gas development.”

But the key to moving policy on Capitol Hill, especially after Massachusetts voters last week gave Senate Republicans the 41st vote to sustain a filibuster, is breaking partisan gridlock.

“What the American people hope – what they deserve – is for all of us, Democrats and Republicans, to work through our differences; to overcome the numbing weight of our politics,” the president said.

But he offered no new template for achieving that outcome, beyond the promise of monthly meetings with leaders of both parties and more common sense. “Rather than fight the same tired battles that have dominated Washington for decades, it’s time to try something new. Let’s try common sense,” he said.

Republicans countered that it’s not common sense to ask for bipartisanship, then lambast the opposition. “He did not help himself with Republicans,” said Sen. Jon Kyl (R) of Arizona, the minority whip. “You don’t bash the opposition and then expect cooperation.”

Republicans bristled at references to the Bush years as “the lost decade,” especially soaring federal budget deficits and an economy in crisis. “Every third reference was to President Bush. After more than a year, the president should take ownership,” Senator Kyl added.

What Republicans want

On the jobs front, Republicans are drawing a line on taxes: no new taxes through healthcare reform and preservation of existing tax cuts. In the run-up to Thursday night’s address, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell challenged the White House to drop the healthcare bill – “thereby signaling to American business they won’t have healthcare taxes next year” – and extend the Bush tax cuts in order to help businesses expand employment.

While Republicans welcomed a renewed focus on getting more credit flowing to small business, many oppose the use of funds from the bank bailout to do it. The president proposed directing $30 billion of the money Wall Street banks have repaid to help community banks lend more to small businesses. Those funds must be used to pay down the deficit, not as a slush fund for other projects, critics say.

“That’s not what that program was created to do,” said Sen. Bob Corker (R) of Tennessee. “When the president diverts money that everyone knows was to be used to repay the deficit, it creates distrust.”

In a challenge to both parties, Mr. Obama reminded Democrats that “we still have the largest majority in decades, and the people expect us to solve some problems, not run for the hills.” To Republicans, he said: “If the Republican leadership is going to insist that 60 votes in the Senate are required to do any business at all in this town, then the responsibility to govern is now yours as well.”

A start over for healthcare reform?

Obama urged lawmakers to take a second look at healthcare reform, his main domestic priority in his first year, which has been stalled by the loss of the Massachusetts’ Senate seat.

“As temperatures cool, I want everyone to take another look at the plan we’ve proposed,” Obama said. Republicans waved hands in the air when he added: “But if anyone from either party has a better approach that will bring down premiums, bring down the deficit, cover the uninsured, strengthen Medicare for seniors and stop insurance company abuses, let me know.”

The Democrats had 60 votes,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R) of Texas, who as chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee helped fund the GOP upset in Massachusetts. “If they had been able to deal with divisions and differences within their own caucus, [healthcare reform] would have been over in August.”

But Senate Republicans without exception say that the White House needs to start over with healthcare reform. “With this monstrosity of a healthcare bill, one of the greatest public services we can provide is to stop it,” Senator Cornyn added.

Democrats say that if healthcare is to have another shot, consensus must come from within their own ranks.

“They’re not going to help him at all,” said Rep. Jim McDermott (D) of Washington, referring to Republicans in both the House and the Senate.


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