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Reaction to Obama's speech once again divided among party lines

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 12, 2013 - Perhaps unsurprisingly, Missouri and Illinois lawmakers generally split along party lines when reacting to President Barack Obama's first State of the Union speech since winning re-election last November.

Democrats praised Obama’s one-hour speech, which, among other things, included calls to repair the nation’s decaying bridges, draw down the conflict in Afghanistan and implement restrictions on firearms. He also called for Congress to raise the nation's minimum wage to $9 an hour and promised to take "executive actions" if Congress didn't act on climate change.

The divide between the two parties was perhaps best showcased in statements from Missouri's top-ranking members of Congress -- U.S. Sens. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and Roy Blunt, R-Mo.

McCaskill noted how Obama wanted to tackle the nation’s debt in “a comprehensive, balanced way would unleash enough capital to boost jobs in every sector of the economy.”

But the emphasis of the two-term senator’s prepared statement was on Congress working together, adding that “we already know the biggest challenges facing our country, but we also already know the obstacles.”

That appeared to coincide with a line in Obama’s speech where he stated: “The American people don’t expect government to solve every problem. They don’t expect those of us in this chamber to agree on every issue. But they do expect us to put the nation’s interests before party”.

“Missouri needs those jobs, and our families and businesses need economic certainty,” McCaskill said in a statement. “But we get nowhere without bipartisan compromise, and elected officials have got to give a little, so everyone can get a lot. That’s why I’m personally committed to continuing my work with Republicans and Democrats to cut more spending, clean special goodies out of the tax code, and continue to boost job opportunities.”

McCaskill's sentimated wasn’t shared by Blunt. Although he said in a statement that he agreed with Obama's calls for "a smarter, more focused government," he added that he thought the president was talking about "a bigger government, and a government that can’t afford to pay its bills.

"This was the eighth time in four years the president said 'it’s now time to focus on the economy,'" Blunt said. "Darn right it’s time to focus on the economy - and on private sector jobs that pay the bill. Government jobs are fine, but government jobs don’t pay the bill – they are the bill."

He also noted that with a Democratic Senate and a Republican House, Obama wasn't going to be able to get Congress to do everything on his wish list.

"Divided government is a great time to solve big problems, and I think the president once again missed a real opportunity to take advantage of this moment," Blunt said. "He’s still acting like what he wants to do is exactly what can be done. That’s not how our system works - particularly when you have a president in one party and one house of the Congress in another."

The differing reaction extended to Missouri's congressional delegation.

U.S. Rep. Lacy Clay, D-St. Louis, praised Obama's speech for "an energetic plan to ensure a thriving middle class, strengthen our economy with a balanced approach to deficit reduction, and reward hard work and responsibility with a fair chance for every American to succeed."

Clay said he enthused about Obama's call for bi-partisan commission to examine the nation's election infrastructure, as well as other aspects of the president's speech.

"I also welcome President Obama's decision to reduce American troop levels in Afghanistan by half and to speed the end of that long war," Clay said in a statement. "Finally, I applaud and strongly support the President's efforts to enact common sense measures that a clear majority of Americans support to reduce gun violence."

A nearly opposite tact was taken by U.S. Rep. Ann Wagner, a Ballwin Republican who said in a statement that Obama provided “old broken promises have only resulted in more spending and more government.”

“The President has created a ‘new normal’ in America,” said Wagner, who was sworn into her first term in office earlier this year. “His ‘new normal’ is higher unemployment, more taxes, a shrinking economy, families barely making ends meet, and a lower quality of life.”

“Over the last four years, Obama’s ‘new normal’ has taken away the American dream and has forced families to settle for less,” she added. “That is not only unacceptable, it’s un-American and we can’t allow mediocrity to become the ‘new normal’ in America. It’s time we start investing in nurses, teacher, carpenters, businesses and stop giving taxpayer paid bailouts to Washington that only result in higher taxes and more debt.” 

And U.S. Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer, R-St. Elizabeth, said in his statement that Obama made clear on Tuesday that "that the era of big government is back, and that means continuing to spend money we don’t have that ultimately puts at risk the future fiscal security of our nation."

"Americans deserve real solutions to the problems facing our nation like the ones offered by House Republicans," said Luetkemeyer, whose district takes in parts of the St. Louis metro area. "These solutions include responsible budgets and more than 30 pieces of legislation that would reduce our debt, cut government spending and provide opportunities for families and growth for small businesses."

"While we’ve heard flowery speeches from this president before, his actions fail to live up to his rhetoric," he added. "At the end of the day, we need more than speeches to turn our nation around. You don’t pass speeches, you pass budgets.”

Kirk diverges a bit from Republican reaction

One Republican lawmaker who offered a bit of a different view of Obama's speech was U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Illinois.

Kirk -- who won Obama's old U.S. Senate seat in 2010 -- recently returned to Congress after recovering from a serious stroke. The president made a point to embrace the Highland Park native before he gave his speech.

The first-term senator said that he shared "the President's optimism that America's brightest days are ahead of us." He said if "we can put aside our political differences and work together to pass a long-term solution, we would avoid the pending sequester and send a strong signal to our creditors that America remains a stable place to conduct business."  

He also expressed a willingness to work with Democratic colleagues on enacting gun control legislation.

"I am proud to sponsor legislation with New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., to dry up the supply of illegal weapons to dangerous drug gangs which are responsible for 80 percent of homicides in Chicago each year," Kirk said. "Additionally, I believe we can pass a universal background check bill this year to keep guns away from criminals and the mentally ill, while protecting law-abiding citizens."

Kirk's Democratic counterpart -- U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill. -- said in his statement that Obama made "the case for an economy that grows from the middle-out, not the top-down." 

"The President spoke about an American economy based on manufacturing and built by the most skilled, best paid, workers in the world," Durbin said. "He also urged Congress to invest in the things that will make America stronger, smarter and more prepared for the future – clean energy, education and infrastructure.”

“With spending cuts looming and a debt only beginning to be brought under control, President Obama showed that we can prioritize our spending, live within our means and build a strong future without passing the bill off to our children,” he added.

U.S. Rep. Bill Enyart, D-Belleville, said it was encouraging "the President focused on what must be the top priority – creating good jobs and investing in manufacturing and nfrastructure."

“Southern Illinois has a proud tradition of manufacturing, the hardest-working and most talented workforce, and farmers and agricultural producers that feed the world," Enyart said. "We are also blessed with natural resources like coal that can power our communities and create new jobs. I wish I had heard more about how coal and a comprehensive Farm Bill can help secure our economy and support a stronger middle class."

Enyart -- who served as Illinois' adjuant general before winning a seat in Congress -- said he was "especially heartened by the President’s announcement to bring home our brave service men and women from Afghanistan."

"I look forward to welcoming home our troops like I had the honor to do in Sparta just a few weeks ago," Enyart said. "We must ensure we keep our promises to our veterans and support a healthy transition to civilian life so they can be leaders in our communities.”

Several House Republicans representing parts of Illinois gave a more negative assessment of Obama's speech. 

U.S. Rep. John Shimkus, R-Collinsville, said that Obama wanted to "raise taxes, limit gun ownership, and over-regulate the climate … none of which will help grow the economy and reduce the unemployment rate."

“Any push with regard to climate change should come through legislative action by Congress, not through fiat by the President," said Shimkus, whose district includes pockets of coal production. "Cap-and-trade legislation has already failed in the Democrat-controlled Senate. This bi-partisan opposition remains in Congress and trying to resurrect these failed policies or pursing efforts such as a carbon tax are misguided and would only serve to create further job loss and raise costs to working families still struggling to pay their bills."

And while he said he agreed with Obama's proposals to fix the nation's bridges and some aspects of the president's energy proposal, U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Taylorville, said in a statement "talk is cheap and it is up to the President to lead the charge on many of his proposals tonight."

“It is time for the President, legislative leaders and all Members of Congress to get serious about the job we were sent here to do,” Davis said. “We owe it to all Americans to stop being politicians and start being statesmen.”

“We must work together and compromise if we want to tackle the difficult issues facing us today,” he added.

Beacon Washington correspondent Rob Koenig provided information for this story.

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.