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President's Address Generates Usual Partisan Split

The U.S. Capitol building
The U.S. Capitol building

(Updated 1:30 p.m., Wed., Jan. 20 with remarks from U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo.)

President Barack Obama ended his State of the Union address with a sweeping call for "better," less divisive politics, but the reaction to the speech fell along the usual partisan lines.

What fellow Democrats such as U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-University City, called “a smart, energetic agenda,’’  Republicans like U.S. Rep. Ann Wagner, R-Ballwin, labeled “the same old, tired, Washington-based ideas.”

Such differences underscored the challenges facing Obama as he seeks to advance his proposals – which included tax hikes on the wealthy and tax breaks for middle-income Americans and families. The GOP criticisms are particularly significant since Republicans now control the U.S. Senate as well as the House.

The one key point of agreement, among many of Congress in both parties, was support for Obama’s apparent plans for a stronger military response to terrorism. There may also be common ground for some of the president's trade proposals.

Here’s a summary of reactions from members of Congress representing Missouri and Illinois.


Claire McCaskill

U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.
File photo
Claire McCaskill

McCaskill, D-Mo., praised the president for what she called “commonsense ideas and opportunities for bipartisan cooperation…including tax cuts aimed at bolstering our middle class.” 

“We’ve made a great deal of progress for working families in the past few years—with a growing number of folks back to work at millions of more jobs, a much smaller deficit, and plunging energy costs—but there’s still more work to do,” the senator said, “And I’m eager to roll up my sleeves with my Republican and Democratic colleagues to keep strengthening our middle class.”

Roy Blunt

In a conference call with reporters on Wednesday, U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., said last night’s State of the Union speech by the president “largely sounded like a speech about what the Congress would not possibly do,” he added.  “My guess is that we won’t hear much about this State of the Union” in an ongoing legislative manner with the possible exceptions of trade and cyber-security issues.

Blunt said he believes “the new Congress will be more likely to give the president trade promotion authority than the old Congress." Historically, Republicans and business groups have been more supportive of the president’s position than many Democrats and labor unions.  In the last Congress, U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., opposed giving the president more leeway in negotiating international trade deals without congressional input and blocked the president’s attempts to move forward on the issue.

“I think cyber-security has moved to a new area of understanding of how important it is to get a new handle” on these threats, said Blunt.  He also favors greater communications between the private and public sectors, so that government entities can move more quickly to counter a cyber-attack in the future.

On the president’s proposal to provide free community college tuition, Blunt, a former university president, said Pell grants are more effective in helping students without incurring additional debt and won’t require the involvement of the federal government – something Blunt sees as a potential threat to the ability of community colleges to respond quickly to local needs in terms of job training and education.

Mark Kirk

Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill
Credit (via Wikimedia Commons/United States Senate)
Mark Kirk

Kirk, R-Ill., cited his own ascension to be chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Veterans Affairs. “I will pursue the bipartisan 10-point plan to end the claims backlog and corrupt practices at our VA hospitals,” he said. “I have only scratched the surface of whistleblower stories that describe horrific treatment of our heroes, including those at the Hines VA Hospital right here in Illinois.”

Dick Durbin

Durbin, D-Ill., zeroed in on Obama’s proposal to “make two years of community college free for responsible students and help provide a path to a solid educational foundation without the debt. That may be a moon-shot idea in this Congress, but it would improve the lives of millions of Americans in one fell swoop. “

Durbin also lauded the president’s plans to reduce mortgage insurance premiums for homeowners with FHA loans, and “to allow workers in businesses with 15 or more employees to earn up to seven paid sick days each year…This proposal would be an absolute game-changer for families in Illinois and across America, and any pro-family Member of Congress should agree.”


William Lacy Clay

Rep. Lacy Clay
Credit St. Louis Public Radio
William Lacy Clay

Clay, D-St. Louis, praised the president for advancing “a smart, energetic agenda that will restore more working families to economic security.  The President’s proposals will lift up the many, instead of just preserving economic privilege for the very few. 

‘I support his efforts to reform the tax code and open the doors of higher education to all, while continuing to protect our historic progress in access to affordable health care and a cleaner environment,” Clay continued.  "I’m hopeful that the Republican majority will seize this opportunity to work with us for the common good.”

Blaine Luetkemeyer

Luetkemeyer, R-St. Elizabeth, offered a sharply different assessment.  “During a time when Americans are struggling to find jobs, health-care costs are skyrocketing, and individuals are being bombarded with burdensome regulations, the president instead decided to ignore your priorities and concerns.”

“I am extremely disappointed the president based his speech around a tax proposal which would hurt our nation’s family farmers and small businesses,” the congressman added.  “It is my hope the president will stop issuing veto threats before common-sense pieces of legislation even get to his desk and he is open to working with Congress so we can start moving our great nation forward again.”

Ann Wagner

Wagner, R-Ballwin, said, “This administration would like the American people to believe that the economy is resurgent and strong. But the American people won’t again be fooled by this president and his proclamations that a top-down economy controlled from Washington is a better economy.”

Ann Wagner.
Credit (via Wikimedia Commons/ United States Department of State)
Ann Wagner

She cited Republicans’ plans to press “policies that actually help hard-working taxpayers by providing them with greater opportunities for advancement, higher wages and a better way of life.”

She concluded, “I am hopeful that when push comes to shove, President Obama will put down his veto pen and work with this Congress, rather than pursue job creation artificially from Washington.”

John Shimkus

Shimkus, R-Collinsville, was equally critical.

“President Obama talked a good game tonight about growing our economy and strengthening the middle class,” the congressman said.

“Unfortunately, the measures he proposed would instead grow government and weaken America’s ability to compete in the global economy. From energy to education, the president’s policies undermine, rather than enhance, the free enterprise system that has given Americans the opportunity to pursue their dreams for generations.”

For example, Shimkus highlighted his own opposition to some of the president’s education proposals.  “Over 10 million middle-class families have worked hard to save over $12 billion in special savings accounts to pay for higher education expenses,” the congressman said. “But what does President Obama propose? Taxing these previously tax-free savings accounts to pay for ‘free’ community college.”

Jo Mannies is a freelance journalist and former political reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.