There were few signs Wednesday morning that President Barack Obama's State of the Union address will thaw in the chill that has so stymied the legislative process here. (Jewel Samad / AFP)
WASHINGTON — There were few signs Wednesday morning that President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address will thaw in the chill that has so stymied the legislative process here.
During his yearly address in the House chamber, Obama vowed to end the Afghanistan war even without a long-term security pact with Kabul, step up sanctions — or worse — against Iran is nuclear talks fail, reform NSA surveillance programs, and fight al-Qaida in Yemen, Somalia, Iraq and Mali.
But he also used the speech to challenge lawmakers to bend toward his whims to get deals done. If lawmakers don't, Obama said he will use executive orders and other tactics to enact parts of his agenda.
“I’m eager to work with all of you. But America does not stand still – and neither will I,” Obama said. “So wherever and whenever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families, that’s what I’m going to do.”
Pundits reacted to the around 90-minute speech with some surprise that Obama did not go farther in calling out Congress — namely, congressional Republicans — for bringing the gears of the legislative process to a slow grind. Over the five years of the Obama presidency, the GOP-run House has passed major bills that the Democratic-controlled Senate couldn’t pass, and Obama wouldn’t sign; the Senate has struggled to pass much of anything, including annual Pentagon spending and policy measures.
The White House sold Obama’s speech for a week as a having more confrontational tone. Yet, Obama several times said he is ready to work with lawmakers on issues like immigration reform that would help defense contractors, changing Obamacare, strengthening sanctions on Iran if nuclear talks fail and others.
The more-conciliatory-than-expected tone, however, did not produce a new tone from Capitol Hill. And the chilliness was bipartisan.
“While I understand and even appreciate President Obama’s commitment to making at least some progress in the coming year through executive orders, he should not give up on working with Congress,” Senate Appropriations Committee member Chris Coons, a Delaware Democrat and Obama ally, said in a statement. “Now more than ever, the country can’t afford for Republicans and Democrats in Washington to remain paralyzed.”
Obama said he would, “reform our surveillance programs — because the vital work of our intelligence community depends on public confidence, here and abroad, that the privacy of ordinary people is not being violated.”
He said he would work with Congress to do that, echoing his speech a few weeks ago on controversial NSA telephone and email spying programs. But there were no signs in the hours after his speech that Obama had convinced even Democratic proponents of the programs to help him.
In her statement on the speech, Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., opted against even mentioning that part of the state of the union address. The same is true of Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who wants major NSA surveillance program reform.
Also notable was the silence of key Democrats, like Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin of Michigan, on Obama’s intention to end the Afghanistan conflict even if Afghan leaders refuse to ink a long-term security deal that would keep some US forces there beyond this year.
More broadly, the House Republican caucus that has so pushed back against Obama reacted to his speech with skepticism. Some hinted the president displayed hypocrisy.
“Throughout his administration, the president has had difficulty working with Congress,” House Deputy GOP Whip Tom Cole of Oklahoma said in a statement.
“Through talk of programs like unemployment benefits, the president again showed that he is more inclined to fight Congress than to work with it,” Cole said. “To get things done in divided government, the president must set goals that unite Democrats and Republicans. But the message in tonight’s speech is a disappointment.”
Senate Armed Services Committee Ranking Member James Inhofe, R-Okla., said “President Obama made clear tonight he plans for more of the same this year and will continue to bypass Congress.”
Inhofe expressed concern about what was not in the commander in chief’s speech.
“I was troubled that President Obama failed to adequately address the national security crisis currently before us.” Inhofe said. “In his first four years, he cut $487 billion out of our military and is pursuing more cuts now through sequestration. He is disarming America by starving our military.”
US lawmakers, including some defense hawks — but not Inhofe — voted for the 2011 Budget Control Act that created the sequester cuts.
Inhofe said Obama’s exclusion of a call to get rid of the remaining across-the-board defense budget cuts is doubly troubling because “the United States has faced news that al-Qaida now has the largest presence in the Middle East and Africa than ever before.”
The SASC ranking member criticized Obama signaling a willingness to ease sanctions on Iran and not putting forward a comprehensive Middle East strategy.
“This threatens our national security and also that of our allies like Israel,” Inhofe said. “Tonight he said nothing to change his defense behavior.”
Some pundits took Obama’s endorsement of a comprehensive immigration measure as a sign a bill might pass this year. But some Republicans that would be needed to get a bill through the Senate sharply questioned Obama’s approach.
“His signature second-term legislative item is an immigration bill that would immediately and permanently double the flow of new immigrant workers competing against unemployed Americans — reducing wages, increasing unemployment, and further shrinking the middle class,” Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., said in a statement. “Experts tell us that the current, very high immigration flow is already a factor in declining wages.”
A number of Senate Republicans voted for an immigration reform bill last year that included about $38 billion on technologies and security personnel along America’s southern border.
Specifically, the Senate-passed bill called for 20,000 new Border Patrol agents — more than doubling the number of boots currently on the ground — along with a wish list that includes four more drones on top of the 10 that the CBP already flies, 30 marine vessels, 17 more Huey helicopters, 10 converted and five new Black Hawk helicopters, and hundreds of ground sensors, and fixed and mobile surveillance systems.
That bill also called for sophisticated surveillance gear that has proven itself on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan. It requests eight VADER (Vehicle Dismount and Exploitation Radar) systems for manned and unmanned aircraft.
But it remains unclear whether House Republicans — and Obama — will push a similar measure in the lower chamber that features so much new spending, even though Senate Republicans contend their measure features a “pay for” that covers the new weapons.