By Dana Milbank
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 24, 2007
Fellow Americans, the state of our union is wobbly.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Vice President Cheney, sitting in the customary place behind President Bush as he addressed the nation from the House chamber last night, resembled nothing so much as a seesaw.
"First we must balance the federal budget," Bush said.
Pelosi shot to her feet, followed slowly by Cheney.
"We can do so without raising taxes," Bush continued.
Cheney leapt up. Pelosi started to stand, then reconsidered and sat down.
Bush called for saving "up to 8.5 billion more gallons of gasoline by 2017."
Pelosi stood to applaud. Cheney remained resolutely planted.
The president demanded a "prompt up-or-down vote" for his judicial nominees.
Cheney rose, grinning and applauding. Pelosi sat silently.
Bush knew he was heading into hostile territory last night: a Congress controlled by Democrats for the first time in a dozen years. With a Watergate-worthy approval rating of 33 percent, Bush couldn't count on faithful support even from fellow Republicans, who in recent days have branded his Iraq policy "dangerously irresponsible." And there, over his right shoulder and holding a large wooden gavel, loomed Pelosi, who has described Bush as "incompetent" and "dangerous."
"He'll be standing in front of a woman who's holding a hammer," Fox News host Steve Doocy warned White House press secretary Tony Snow yesterday morning.
But Snow was not worried. "The first time you have Madam Speaker sitting up in front," he said, "is a pretty cool thing."
Snow's good cheer proved justified. Pelosi's Democrats were, for the most part, well behaved last night, avoiding the noisy interruption they gave Bush when he spoke about Social Security in 2005.
Bush began with a gracious tribute to the first madam speaker, and he packed his speech carefully: he began with mostly inoffensive domestic policies, avoided Iraq until the seventh of 10 pages, and then closed with feel-good paeans to good Samaritans and heroes seated in the first lady's gallery.
As a result, both sides were unusually calm on a night where the yawns nearly equaled the cheers. Disagreements were expressed in subtler terms: Lawmakers voted with their feet, or rather their knees, as they decided whether to stand and applaud. And reporters watched as the 10 presidential aspirants in the hall calculated their every fidget.
Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) barely lifted his head from the speech text in his lap and sometimes rested his finger thoughtfully on his temple. By contrast, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), seated immediately behind Obama, stared vacantly toward Bush for much of the speech, as if daydreaming. Both, however, applauded when the subject came to ethanol, a favorite in the Iowa caucuses. Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), seated near the front, crossed his leg and wiggled his toe impatiently.
On the Republican side, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) barely mustered energy to applaud as Bush entered, then lumbered reluctantly to his feet only a few times through the speech.
Other lawmakers used the moment in the spotlight to display their quirks and eccentricities. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who recently took a dig at Condoleezza Rice because the secretary of state is childless, walked right past Rice without even a pause at the start of the speech. Rep. Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.) greeted Bush with cheers of "way-oh," as if watching a football game, then later found time to peruse his BlackBerry -- as did Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa). Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.), who claimed her favorite seat on the aisle at 8:06 a.m. -- 11 hours and 54 minutes before the speech -- was there to shake the notables' hands in front of the cameras.
The real entertainment was on the dais, where Pelosi and Cheney were popping up and down awkwardly. The speaker, more agile than the vice president, was usually the first to her feet, but both stood dutifully for the obvious applause lines: getting rid of spending "earmarks," for example, or supporting the troops or stopping the terrorists. And, like the rest of the chamber, both were still and silent for long and painful passages about the problems facing the country in the Middle East.
But there were plenty of lines to present Cheney and Pelosi -- and their respective sides -- with the dilemma of when to stand or clap.
Bush called for the need to "pass medical liability reform." Cheney applauded. Pelosi took a drink of water.
The awkwardness increased when the subject finally came to Iraq.
Bush urged lawmakers to "turn events toward victory." Cheney stood and applauded. Pelosi held to her chair, but, as the applaud spread, finally stood without clapping.
Bush called for the United States "to succeed in Iraq." Cheney again stood and clapped. Pelosi wiped her lips and remained seated, as did most Democrats, except for relative hawks such as Clinton and the newly minted independent, Sen. Joe Lieberman (Conn.) When Bush spoke of Marines going to Anbar province to "find the terrorists," a few Republican leaders -- Sens. Ted Stevens (Alaska), John Cornyn (Tex.) and Jon Kyl (Ariz.), and Reps. John Boehner (Ohio) and Roy Blunt (Mo.) -- tried to start a standing ovation, but got little support from either side.
And when Bush spoke about deploying "more than 20,000 additional soldiers and Marines to Iraq," there was silence all around.
Wisely, Bush backed away from the controversy, to close with celebrations of NBA star Dikembe Mutombo, subway hero Wesley Autrey and a selfless sergeant, Tommy Rieman. Everybody on the floor rose, in unison this time, and Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.) punched a fist in the air. Finally, the seesaw got a rest.
Bush, his speech done, extended a hand to Pelosi, who clutched it warmly in both of her hands. While Bush worked the room on the way out, Cheney and Pelosi stood side by side, looking forward, not knowing quite what to say.
Staff writer Lyndsey Layton and political researcher Zachary A. Goldfarb contributed to this report.