Two takes on presidential race and Bush's speech

Steny Hoyer and Richard Durbin, key members of the Democratic congressional leadership, shared their views Tuesday.

M. Spencer Green/AP
Sen. Dick Durbin was a guest of the Monitor Breakfast on Tuesday.

Washington - When House majority leader Steny Hoyer (D) of Maryland and Senate majority whip Richard Durbin (D) of Illinois met reporters Tuesday to discuss the president's State of the Union address, many of the questions focused instead on the 2008 presidential election.

Senator Durbin, who is co-chairman of Sen. Barack Obama's presidential campaign, said it was "nothing short of amazing" that the campaign was able to keep secret Sen. Edward Kennedy's decision to endorse Senator Obama from last Wednesday until Sunday. He said the endorsement, formally announced at a Washington rally Monday, "was historic and will give momentum to the victory in South Carolina."

But at the Monitor-sponsored breakfast, Durbin raised the possibility that the Democratic nomination battle could be so close that the winner might not be known until the party's August convention in Denver. "It could be, really could be, the situation where we will be headed to Denver with still some uncertainty about who the nominee will be," he said.

Both men reacted sharply to charges by Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney that Washington is broken. "If Washington is broken, the Republicans broke it," Representative Hoyer said. "If Washington is broken from Romney's perspective, it is broken because the president and the Republicans in the United States Senate who have enough votes to prevent action in the United States Senate are the ones who broke it."

It is not surprising that key members of the Democratic congressional leadership did not find President Bush's final State of the Union address a stirring call to action.

It "was a speech that reflected a recognition that his term is pretty much at an end," said Hoyer, the House's second-ranking Democrat. "I thought it was certainly not a visionary speech...."

The talk "was a lifeless recitation of the president's beliefs," Durbin added. "It is his story, and he is sticking with it...."

But Durbin singled out for praise Mr. Bush's request that Congress reauthorize his AIDS relief plan and double the plan's funding with an additional $30 billion over five years.

"I applauded ... his renewed commitment to the global AIDS fight," Durbin said. "Of all the things this president has done in the foreign-policy realm, it is the one thing that he can point to with pride in years to come after his presidency."

Both congressional leaders pushed back against the president's plans to crack down on earmarks, which are pet congressional spending projects in members' districts. In his speech, Bush said he would veto any spending bill that does not cut the number and cost of earmarks in half. And he promised to issue an executive order telling federal agencies to ignore any future earmark that is dropped into a committee report rather than being explicitly voted on by Congress.

It would cost "$2 trillion to extend the president's tax cuts through 2014," Durbin noted. "If we are talking about getting a grip on our budget and on our deficit, how can the president so blithely call for $2 trillion in increase in the deficit and then hammer away at these piddling little earmarks, as if this is really what the fiscal future of America is all about?"

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