WASHINGTON — Members of Minnesota’s congressional delegation greeted President Obama’s jobs speech much like one would expect them to: Democrats quickly gave approval to the president’s proposals, and Republicans came away skeptical.
Obama proposed a $447 billion package that would extend a series of existing jobs measures (such as unemployment benefits) and introduce a slate of new ones (like a national infrastructure bank) all in the name of kick-starting a lagging economy and bringing down a 9.1 percent national unemployment rate. The so-called American Jobs Act will be fully paid for, Obama insisted, by increasing deficit reduction measures this fall and closing tax loopholes for corporations and the wealthy.
Minnesota Democrats came away, by and large, pleased.
“I think that it was right for the president to be bold and assert a real vision for putting America back to work,” Rep. Keith Ellison said. “Obviously there were things I didn’t like … but I’m looking at this from the big picture, that I like most of what I heard, and I’m ready to vote for the American Jobs Act.”
Republicans, meanwhile, warned that the plan represented a replay of failed economic policies held over from the 2009 stimulus package.
“Some of the policies that were rehashed tonight — I’ve got to see the details, but they’re not going to move us forward,” Rep. Erik Paulsen said.
‘You should pass it right away’
Much of the plan’s cost comes from proposals such as:
- Extending payroll tax cuts for businesses and their employees.
- Offering tax credits to businesses that hire the long-time unemployed and veterans.
- Establishing an infrastructure bank to rebuild, repair or upgrade roads, bridges and schools.
To pay for the increased spending, Obama said the debt reduction “super committee” should seek to not only eliminate $1.5 trillion over 10 years, its original goal, but find savings equal to the cost of the American Jobs Act as well.
“There should be nothing controversial about this piece of legislation,” he said. “Everything in this bill will be paid for. Everything.”
Of course, what deficit reduction looks like is a matter of bitter disagreement between the two parties — Republicans favor spending cuts and Democrats want changes to the tax code and increased taxes on the wealthy.
Obama also proposed a series of trade agreements and regulatory reforms meant to give businesses more economic freedom — ideas that have been floated by Republicans.
After introducing each of his proposals, Obama repeated the same mantra: “You should pass [the bill] right away.” Most of the time, Democrats greeted this call with applause; most Republicans remained seated and stone-faced for much of the speech.
Minnesota Democrats ready to vote for the plan
Even Democrats acknowledged the proposal isn’t a perfect one. Ellison said he was concerned about Obama’s proposal that Congress consider major reforms to entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare, and both he and Sen. Al Franken said they were uneasy about some of the trade deals Obama and the GOP are pushing.
But Franken said he was supportive of the plan as a whole.
“I don’t want to let the perfect be the enemy of the good,” he said.
And beyond any minor quibbles, Democrats were pleased with Obama’s speech, saying that it laid out “a bold plan” (Franken) that’s “incredibly realistic” (Sen. Amy Klobuchar) and “a real vision for putting America back to work” (Ellison).
Klobuchar said she was especially pleased Obama tied the plan to the debt reduction committee. Rep. Tim Walz, a member of the House Transportation Committee, said he was most excited about the prospects of an infrastructure bank. His invited guest for the speech, Lee Hiller, the president of the Operating Engineers Local 49 in Walz’s district, agreed.
“This is putting the workers to work and fixing the third generation infrastructure that we have built,” Hiller said. “Republican, Democrat, it doesn’t matter what you are … our infrastructure is falling apart.”
Republicans: The devil is in the details
Paulsen’s invited guests, small business owners from his district, had a different point of view.
Greg Dolphin, a fast food franchisee, said many of Obama’s hiring incentives for companies wouldn’t be beneficial for small businesses that have less than 50 employees, like each of his individual Burger King franchises.
“It doesn’t help us at all. Not at all. Nothing,” he said. “So nothing that I heard tonight does anything for me.”
Paulsen, for his part, said he supported the trade proposals Obama brought up, as well as the plan to loosen regulations on businesses. Republicans are pursuing a jobs agenda that revolves around regulation repeals and lowered taxes, two measures they say will provide more stability to the private sector and encourage it to invest in new jobs.
“I think the regulation repeal agenda is moving in the right direction. Regulations matter,” he said. Along those same lines, “a lot of the details [Obama] spoke about to help small businesses are not going to encourage them to make the hires. It’s the long-term tax reform rather than the short-term gimmicks that are absolutely needed.”
John Kline, in a statement, echoed Paulsen: “Obama’s call for more stimulus-type measures ignores the reality that people – not government – are our nation’s true job creators. The private sector doesn’t need Washington to tell them how to create jobs; they need Washington to get out of their way.”
Michele Bachmann gave a rebuttal speech to Obama’s address. Chip Cravaack, a freshman lawmaker from the 8th Congressional District did not attend the speech. According to his office spokesman, “Rep. Cravaack was huddling with his team listening carefully to the President’s speech.”
Can Congress get the work done?
Differing opinions between Republicans and Democrats on a matter as important as job creation is nothing new — but after a bruising summer battle over increasing the federal debt limit left both parties damaged in the eyes of the public, the question of whether they can work together to get something done this fall looms large.
With an election just 14 months away, no one will want a prolonged fighting over job creation or a tepid end product neither side is happy with, which the final debt limit deal ended up being. Leadership from both parties indicated their willingness to set aside politics and work to find compromise on the jobs issue — now it’s a matter of finding out if lawmakers can actually do it.
Obama was characteristically optimistic in his calls for bipartisanship on Thursday.
“No single individual built America on their own. We built it together,” Obama said. “We have been, and always will be, one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all; a nation with responsibilities to ourselves and with responsibilities to one another. And members of Congress, it is time for us to meet our responsibilities.”
Eric Cantor, the House Republican Majority Leader, struck a similar tone while meeting with reporters on Wednesday.
“The best thing for us as we look towards the next three or four months is to focus on delivering results to the people of this country,” he said. “That means we have to focus on areas of commonality, and try to transcend differences here. We need to build consensus and that is going to require us all not to impugn motives or to question patriotism.”
Minnesota lawmakers followed the same line of thinking, if only for one night.
If no serious legislation is passed, “I think it’s a pox on both houses,” Walz said. “And I think it’s probably appropriate.”
Devin Henry can be reached at email@example.com.