WASHINGTON — President Obama’s State of the Union address was based around one theme more than any other: how lawmakers can make 2014 a “year of action.”
What that means depends on whom you ask.
Democratic members of the Minnesota’s congressional delegation said they largely liked most of what Obama proposed: more federal involvement in job creation efforts, reforming the immigration system, investing in education, wages equity between men and women and a generally left-of-center approach to governance. Those who talked to reporters after the speech said they’d like to pursue a minimum wage hike, as Obama called for, but acknowledged it would be tough in the face of Republican opposition.
But given the generally depressed outlook for what Congress can get done this year, their own standards for a successful “year of action” in 2014 are much lower than they might otherwise have been after an Obama State of the Union.
Sen. Al Franken said lawmakers should take up workforce development bills and education programs. He called immigration reform “the biggest agenda item that would be really significant if we could do this year,” but he acknowledged it has to get through the GOP-controlled House first.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar said Congress should pass a farm bill (on track for this week), workforce training legislation, a bipartisan water resources act and make progress on immigration and the minimum wage. Those last two were on Rep. Keith Ellison’s list as well, along with one “must-pass” bill, a renewal of federal transportation programs.
Rep. Betty McCollum’s biggest goal was more abstract: Congress should “continue to work in partnership with our businesses to create opportunities for them to grow,” and to help raise the wages of underpaid workers. The Twin Cities’ Punch Pizza did that last year, and it earned a shout-out from Obama in his speech.
Maybe Rep. Tim Walz had the most realistic expectations of the group. He wants the water resources bill, which is in conference committee. He backs the farm bill, up for vote in the House on Wednesday. Congress needs to pass a transportation bill this year, and he said it should do so quickly.
“And no drama in threatening job growth … I don’t think it’s setting the bar too high,” he said. “You tackle the things you can.”
Paulsen: Some potential agreement
Rep. Michele Bachmann’s idea of a successful “year of action” is just a bit different.
Instead of raising the minimum wage, she said Congress should lower corporate tax rates to spur hiring. She called for opening up even more domestic energy production. Immigration reform based around eventual citizenship for undocumented immigrants is “silliness,” she said.
And, of course, “a year of action would begin with correcting the errors of the president’s signature legislation, Obamacare,” she said.
Obama’s pronouncements about health care, the minimum wage, energy and climate change divided the House chamber on Tuesday night — Democrats roared with approval while Republicans sat on their hands.
Even still, Rep. Erik Paulsen said Obama would find willing partners in the GOP if he picks his targets carefully. The top two on Paulsen’s list: Enacting new trade agreements — which are bipartisan, but rare — and overhauling the tax code — a lofty goal for a divided Congress.
“That’s what people expect us to do, to be able to cooperate, build consensus and move forward,” he said.
As anticipated, Obama said he’s willing to work around Congress when it won’t pass what he wants. He proposed a few immediate executive actions, though none as high profile as his decision to raise the minimum wage for new federal contract workers.
Ellison and congressional liberals had been calling on Obama to do that for almost a year. Ellison said he found out Monday night that it would be included in the State of the Union.
“The truth is it’s going to help people in a meaningful way,” he said. “It’s meaningful and it’s an important signal. The federal government shouldn’t be leading the way to the low-wage economy, it shouldn’t be leading the way in the race to the bottom.”
As for legislating by executive order, Republicans were obviously and uniformly opposed. In a statement, Rep. John Kline called the executive actions “fiats,” and said, “no executive order or unilateral action will help working families if it simply perpetuates the same flawed agenda and failed status quo.”
Paulsen noted Republicans have already pushed back against earlier Obama executive orders, including those dealing with the health care law.
Going forward, he said, “we want to make sure everything is done constitutionally and transparently.”
But there was also hope among Minnesotans that progress wouldn’t have to come by way of executive action. Heartened by recent successful budget, appropriations and farm bill negotiations, members said they could sense a general willingness on both sides to work together this year, at least on must-pass bills or smaller items.
“I think he basically said let’s work together, and I think that I’d like to see us build on a couple of things that have happened of late,” Franken said.
Paulsen said he sensed the same tone in Obama’s speech.
“That was part of his theme as well, making sure Congress is working together when there are opportunities to do that,” he said.
In the end, the success of Congress in 2014 depends on how many of those opportunities there actually are.
“There’s a laundry list of certainly Democratic ideas in there,” Walz said. “Certainly some of them are never going to see the light of day on the floor. But he gave us enough of a list, and broadly enough, that there is no reason why some of those should not be supported and get done.”
Devin Henry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @dhenry