Reporting from Washington —
Tuesday’s State of the Union address will be the first test of whether President Obama’s post-election shift to a more centrist course is more than symbolic, Republicans said Sunday in the lead-up to his speech.
“We’re going to find out beginning next week how much of this he really means,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said in an interview on “Fox News Sunday.” “It is kind of a trust-but-verify moment. Let’s see if he’s really willing to do it, and if he is, I think he’ll find a lot of help among Republicans in Congress.”
After an electoral “shellacking” in November, Obama embraced a compromise that extended the Bush-era tax cuts, retooled his West Wing to include more moderate voices, such as his new chief of staff, William Daley, and made new overtures to the business community.
His polls have rebounded as well on the eve of his second State of the Union address, passing the 50% threshold in a series of major surveys.
Addressing supporters in a video message released Saturday night, Obama said his speech Tuesday would focus on creating jobs and American competitiveness, as well as the nation’s deficit challenges.
Though calling for some budget cuts, Obama also is expected to call for additional spending on infrastructure and education. That raised red flags among Republicans.
“This is not a time to be looking at pumping up government spending in very many areas,” McConnell said.
“When the president talks about competitiveness, sure, we want America to be competitive,” U.S. Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said on “Meet the Press.” “We want to cut and grow. When we hear invest from anyone in Washington, to me that means more spending.”
Cantor, leader of the new House Republican majority, said Republicans will press for serious spending cuts in response to the expected vote this spring on raising the nation’s debt limit.
Thursday, a group of conservative House Republicans and Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) unveiled a spending plan that would cut $2.5 trillion from the federal ledger. Republicans more broadly campaigned in 2010 on returning spending to 2008 levels, a proposal that will be debated this week in the House.
First, though, Republicans pushed forward a vote to repeal Obama’s healthcare-reform law. It passed the House on Wednesday, and Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), also appearing on Fox, acknowledged that “it’s possible we’ll face that vote,” despite Democrats’ objections, if Republicans move it as an amendment.
If so, said Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), Democrats would respond by calling for votes on specific portions of the law that are popular.
“In the end, their repeal bill is going to be so full of holes it looks like Swiss cheese,” he said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”
Sen. John McCain supported a repeal vote in the Senate, adding that there already was agreement with Democrats on ways to improve the law.
McCain, Obama’s rival in the 2008 election, also praised the president’s shift in tone.
“I think there’s common ground because I think the president realizes, as a result of the November elections, that the American people have a different set of priorities, and so we should seize that opportunity for the good of the country,” he said.
Calls for unity have manifested themselves in a move, largely initiated by Democrats, to break from the tradition of sitting along party lines during the speech. Durbin joked that when he sat with his new Republican colleague Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), “I’m bringing the popcorn. He’s bringing a Coke with two straws.”
“I’m available,” Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) responded.
McCain said he would sit with Democratic New Mexico Sen. Tom Udall and that he hoped the new arrangement would cut down on unnecessary interruptions that he said distracted from the speech.
But McConnell said the symbolism was overblown.
“The American people are more interested in actual accomplishments on a bipartisan basis in the next six to nine months than they are in the seating arrangements in the State of the Union,” he said.