What Obama's allies and rivals want to hear from his last State of the Union

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Washington, DC, January 11, 2016 | comments

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What Obama’s allies and rivals want to hear from his last State of the Union

By Mike DeBonis, Karoun Demirjian and Kelsey Snell

Terrorism, immigration, gun control — those are just a few of the issues that Republican and Democratic lawmakers alike would like to hear President Obama emphasize in his last State of the Union address on Tuesday night.

But that’s about all on which sharply polarized lawmakers agree.

Democrats want the president to stress the gun control executive orders he recently announced, while some Republicans would just like for Obama’s last speech to a joint session of Congress to end as quickly as possible.

“I just want it to be over with. I hope it’s really short,” said Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-Kan.). “The best thing about it is its going to be the last one.”

Democrats, meanwhile, led by Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) — one of two Muslim members — and Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Fla.) are encouraging other lawmakers to bring Muslim Americans to the speech as anti-Muslim rhetoric grows. So far, at least a dozen Democrats have committed to attending with a Muslim American guest.

Wasserman Schultz will bring as her guest Muslim American doctor  Mohsin Jaffer. Ellison has called on Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wisc.) to bring a Muslim American guest, noting Ryan spoke out against Donald Trump’s call to temporarily ban all Muslims from entering the country.

“I really hope that [Obama] speaks about healing our country. The hateful anti-Muslim rhetoric on the right has been horrific. It has just been awful.” Ellison said. “I hope that he speaks to the need to not demonize people because of their religion and say this anti-Muslim hate is unacceptable.”

Here’s a look at what members of Congress would like to see from the president during his final State of the Union:

Gun control supporters

Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.) says Obama must ensure that any gun control proposals are bipartisan. (Amy Newman/The Record of Bergen County via AP)

Guns are a big issue to lawmakers in the wake of Obama’s announcement last week that he will unilaterally seek to license more gun dealers who sell at shows or over the Internet.

Some Democrats want to hear more.

“I definitely want to hear him talk about the gun violence issue. It’s very, very important,” said Rep. Robin Kelly (D-Ill.).

“I want him to reinforce the executive order that he has issued,” said Rep. Danny Davis (D-Ill.). “There is no reason whatsoever for the everyday, ordinary citizen to have access to high-powered weaponry or the bullets that you use in them.”

Others Democrats, however, urged caution – and were skeptical that belaboring Obama’s executive orders could do any good at all for a skeptical Congress that has repeatedly failed to take action on the issue.

“I want to see a reaching out to the other side,” said Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.)  “We need to make sure that when we have legislation, the first anti-gun violence legislation should be bipartisan … If it’s not, it’s not going to pass,” he added. “Making speech is fine, but let’s see what we can do nose-to-nose.”

Defense Hawks

House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Rep. Mike McCaul (R-Texas) would support, under certain conditions, a new AUMF pushed by Obama. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

Both Republicans and Democrats agree this is a crucial issue after the Paris and San Bernardino terror attacks — since then, national security has skyrocketed to the top of voters’ concerns in recent polls.

“When it’s polling the No. 1 issue, I think you have to address it,” House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Mike McCaul (R-Texas) said. “He has to address it and ensure Congress he has a plan to defeat and destroy ISIS and end this radical Islamic movement.”

Concerns about the Islamic State, the ongoing hostilities in Syria, and the situation in Afghanistan and Iraq have defense hawks training their eyes on the White House for its next move. Some want to know whether Obama will again urge Congress to pass a new authorization for use for military force (AUMF) governing its actions toward ISIS.

McCaul is interested to see if Obama called on Congress “to act with an AUMF – which I would be supportive of, depending on what it looks like.”

But other leading Republicans are skeptical they will hear anything they can get excited about when Obama addresses the country Tuesday night.

“I hope we hear the truth. I hope we don’t hear spin, but I don’t know,” said House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-Texas). “If it’s all rosy that things are going great, that we’ve got ISIS on the run, and you know, the Russians are quivering and the Iranians are going to comply with all their agreements and the Chinese are going to stop building islands and the North Koreans are really not testing nukes anymore – it will lack credibility.”

Thornberry is also waiting to hear the administration’s long-awaited plan to close Guantanamo Bay prison. But as for it coming up in the State of the Union address? “I don’t know,” Thornberry said, “Maybe I’ll just be surprised.”

Immigration reform backers

It seems like reform supporters have given up on Obama calling for comprehensive reform at the moment. It’s an extreme longshot anyway with a GOP Congress and the thorny issue will likely await the new president, depending on their party.

But reformers have a new bone to pick with the president: they’re irate over ongoing deportations of Central American migrants fleeing violence in their home countries. They say these migrants should be treated as refugees and that the U.S. government should be doing more to protect them instead of sending them home.

“What the president can say is that we have a refugee crisis,” said Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), adding that Obama should ask Congress for “a billion dollars more” in funding to tackle the surge in migrants fleeing Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras.

And to those who support the deportations – or would balk at such a figure? If “you don’t want refugees in the United States of America, then create democracies in Guatemala, create transparency in El Salvador, give freedom to women from human trafficking in Honduras,” Gutierrez argued. “And if you do those things, people will live their lives – maybe in poverty, but they will do it in peace.”

Republican leaders

House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) wishes Obama would just “take it all back.” (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

Ryan said Obama would be best off saying “I take it all back,” referring to his entire White House agenda.

He should say “that health care was wrong, we shouldn’t have done Dodd-Frank, I want to actually lower tax rates, clear out crony capitalism, and restore the Constitution to its rightful place in American life,” Ryan joked. “That’s what I would encourage him to say.”

Ryan quipped “Something tells me he might not say that.”

While there are a small handful of issues where Obama’s policy agenda has some buy-in from congressional Republicans — criminal justice, for example — GOP leaders have in recent weeks chosen to emphasize their renewed efforts to repeal Obamacare and a close focus on security issues.

“The key issues that are on the minds of Americans today are national security, terrorism, border security …  and he’s done nothing to make them feel better about it except give speeches,” said Rep. Bill Flores (R-Texas), the chairman of the Republican Study Committee. “Instead, he’s focused on all these other things. He’s focused on guns and climate change.”

“In a perfect world, what he’d do is come in and talk about … what’s the future like for national security in this country, what’s he going to do to change his ways?” Flores asked.

Freedom Caucusers

House Freedom Caucus Chair Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) says “this is number eight and it’s always the same old thing.” (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite. File)

Mostly, these House conservative responsible for ousting then-Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) just want to see the president’s speech over and done with.

“I’ll be at the speech and I’ll listen — but this is number eight and it’s always the same old thing. It’s more government, more spending, more control of Washington. I’m expecting more of that,” said Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), the head of the Freedom Caucus.

Obama has “become a kind of loner in the White House, almost a non-entity except for a couple hundred thousand bureaucrats out there pushing regulations,” Huelskamp argued.

Maybe, Huelskamp said, Obama will extend an olive branch on tax reform. But that’s unlikely, he said: “I don’t thing he has any desire to do with us. He’s not working with us other than picking a fight.”

Congressional Black Caucus

Civil rights hero John Lewis (D-Ga.) says the president has to work to unify the country.

Some of Obama’s closest political allies want to hear more about gun control, income inequality and jobs. But many also want Obama to do something to address the heated rhetoric aimed at Muslims.

“I think he has to unify the country and speak about the fact that we’re one people. I want him to say that we’re one people, one family, one house,” said Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.).  “It doesn’t matter if we’re black or white or Asian American or Native American or Latino. Or if we’re Christian, Jewish, Muslim. We’ve got to live together.”

Lewis added “He should not just speak to the American family. He’s got to speak to the world family.”

“I want to hear him revisit the issue of gun control,” said Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.). “I want him to address the issue of income inequality and, again, I want him to try to talk about how do we bring more jobs to our country and avoid the hemorrhaging … Of course I also want him to talk about education and how we help our young people afford college and not be in debt for 30 years.”

“I hope to hear him talk more about gun control, certainly, education and the economy…I really want him to talk about the growing extremists both internally and internationally,” said Rep. Andre Carson (D-Ind.), the other Muslim American in Congress. “I think, most importantly, the president knows as reflected in his town hall that in order for this shared enterprise we call the United Sates to work we have to work together in a bipartisan fashion.”

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