The president’s message was hard to miss during his speech to a joint session of Congress Thursday night: Pass this jobs bill — and now.
The subtle rebuttal from Capitol Hill: For the most part, we’ll take a pass.
Sure, Republicans plucked a few of Barack Obama’s plans to applaud. They still like the trade deals and they embraced a Georgia program that subsidizes employers that hire folks who have been out of work for a long time. Rather than slamming down a flat “no,” House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) even promised to break those ideas out and pass them on the House floor.
But the real meat of the $447 billion proposal will see more action on the campaign trail than in the Capitol, setting up Obama’s still-unwritten “American Jobs Act” as the focal point of his argument that it is congressional Republicans, not the administration’s policies, that are hurting the nation’s beleaguered economy.
The stakes are obvious for Obama — his re-election is on the line. But they’re just as high for Republican members of Congress who will be on the hook to defend their positions if they stand in his way. Democrats said they liked Obama’s fight on Thursday night, and they’re about to get more of it. Republicans were careful not to give Obama the ability to cast them as reflexive “naysayers.”
The president is going to Cantor’s hometown of Richmond on Friday, he will be in House Speaker John Boehner’s home state of Ohio next week, and he made crystal clear in the speech that he plans to call out Republicans who oppose him all over the country.
“There’s a bridge that needs repair between Ohio and Kentucky that’s on one of the busiest trucking routes in North America,” he said — flagging a project in Boehner’s home region and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s state.
“It was a very political, very campaign-oriented speech designed to project beyond the chamber to the audience out there that he has to win in ’12,” Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) said.
Indeed, Obama and his team did little to suggest that he planned to roll up his sleeves and negotiate with Congress — a strategy that failed to produce the “grand bargain” he had sought in conjunction with a debt-limit increase over the summer.
For now, Republicans say there’s no chance of the whole bill making it to Obama’s desk.
“If it’s all wrapped in one package, that’s not going to see the light of day,” said Rep. Lee Terry (R-Neb.), who applauded when Obama talked about building American infrastructure rather than that of foreign countries. Asked whether he was concerned about the prospect of the Democratic mayor of Omaha pressuring him publicly, Terry replied: “Fortunately, our mayor just squeaked out a recall [election].”
Even some Democrats also said they would wait to see the fine print before signing on.
“I will spend the coming days evaluating at this proposal more closely, and will work hard with my Democratic and Republican colleagues to pass a commonsense agenda that creates jobs, restores confidence and rebuilds our great nation – without adding to our exploding debts and deficits,” Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) said. “This nation cannot afford to take on one more dollar of debt, and I will not support any plan that adds to our crushing debt.”
Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett told POLITICO that Obama is ready to take his case for the bill in swing states — in Richmond, Va., on Friday and Columbus, Ohio — in the next couple of weeks and will engage “governors and mayors” to push Congress to fund new transportation and school-construction projects while cutting employers’ payroll taxes.
But from a legislative standpoint, the speech raised as many questions as it answered.
Republicans and Democrats alike wondered where they would get the money to pay for Obama’s plan, which he said could be offset by the congressional supercommittee that is already charged with closing $1.5 trillion of budget deficits over the next decade.
“The president claimed that everything in his bill is paid for, but instead of specifying how he intends to pay for his proposals, he attempted to pass the buck to the select committee,” said Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), who is one of the 12 members of the panel. “The Select Committee has a short period of time to tackle our overspending and deficit problems, and the bulk of the president’s proposals tonight would move us in the wrong direction.”
Sen. Max Baucus, a Montana Democrat who sat between fellow supercommittee members Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.) and Fred Upton (R-Mich.) during the speech, expressed similar — if a bit gentler — skepticism.
“It adds to our challenge, we’ll see what he comes up with. We have to see what he comes up with – a week from Monday. I’m more interested in how we suggest to pay for it all,” Baucus said.
Democrats on Capitol Hill generally gave the proposal a warm reception.
“The broad strokes are where we need to be,” Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) said.
But they don’t have enough firepower to get it done on their own. They’re in the minority in the House, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) still doesn’t have the filibuster-proof majority he would need to pass it.
Their best bet is to pressure GOP lawmakers to give ground on spending for popular transportation projects and education measures.
Democratic-aligned interest groups said they were ready to push Congress to adopt the bill.
Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association, said his members are e-mailing members of Congress in favor of school construction money and funds that would go to hire teachers.
“This can’t be about money,” he said. “It’s got to be about people.”
Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley said the same dynamic could take hold in the states, with state and local officials pressing Republican lawmakers to accept the president’s proposals.
“Every governor and every mayor, regardless of party, should be pushing for the jobs bill,” O’Malley said in an interview in the Capitol.
— Manu Raju contributed story
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