Nobody yelled at the president. When you control the House of Representatives, maybe you don’t have to.
On the right side of the chamber Thursday night, the House Republican majority sat silent through much of President Obama’s jobs address. Members clapped for veterans getting jobs. They laughed when Obama said his ideas weren’t “political grandstanding.”
But mostly they sat.
They sat while Obama got standing ovations from the left side of the chamber about protecting collective-bargaining rights. Sat while he characterized a GOP push to cut regulations as a “race to the bottom.” Sat while Obama said of his jobs bill, “You should pass it right away.”
Thursday night’s speech was a restaging of a familiar Washington ritual, with an unfamiliar cast. There was a Democratic president trying to work with a divided Congress. And a Republican majority was trying to figure out how to dissent without being disruptive, or seeming disrespectful.
Going in, both sides said they wanted to find new ways to work together.
After a fiery speech to a stone-faced GOP audience, it appeared they would go on looking.
“The president had some good ideas. I think he missed a lot of opportunities by writing people off,” by characterizing Republican positions unfairly, said Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) “It was not as good a speech as I’d hoped it would be, but some of the elements give us a starting place.”
Thursday’s speech came at a sensitive time for Obama and the House GOP: Both had been stung by the perception that they are more interested in political warfare than real-world solutions. House Republican leaders seemed to be taking a different tack than the top Republican in the Senate, Minority Leader Mitch McConnnell (Ky.).
On Thursday morning, for instance, McConnell bashed Obama for a speech he hadn’t given yet. “This isn’t a jobs plan; it’s a reelection plan,” McConnell said on the Senate floor.
But in the House — whose leaders had pushed Democrats to the brink of a government shutdown and a national default earlier this year — top Republicans said they were seeking common ground.
Thursday’s speech came as leaders of the House GOP had sought to portray themselves as seeking common ground with the president. In a closed-door meeting, they asked rank-and-file Republicans to show Obama respect.
“I’ve got 434 colleagues who have their own opinions and they’re entitled to them,” House Speaker John A. Boehner (Ohio) told reporters afterward. “But as an institution, the president is coming at our invitation. We ought to be respectful and we ought to welcome him.”
Presidential addresses to Congress are fraught moments of political intimacy. People who have spent careers criticizing one another in absentia are suddenly face to face. Then, they are subjected to an elaborate ritual of welcomes and thank-yous and my-fellow-Americans that is designed to keep them quiet.
“There’s plenty of places for shouting matches . . . but once you’re in that chamber, there should be decorum,” said Raymond Smock, a former House historian. Smock remembered some presidential addresses, decades in the past, when speakers were so worried about appearances that they used staffers to fill empty seats. “Decorum is necessary in order to get things done.”
In these meetings, the traditional method for expressing dissent is to sit, silent, when the other side gets up to applaud a partisan point.
But, in recent years, some lawmakers haven’t been satisfied with silence. In the 1990s, President Bill Clinton heard hisses when he put down a balanced-budget amendment favored by Republicans. In 2005, President George W. Bush heard catcalls from Democrats when he talked about overhauling Social Security.
And, in 2009, Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) yelled “You lie!” at Obama as the president gave an address to Congress on health care.
In this instance, a few Republicans said they would dissent by not showing up at all.
Rep. Joe Walsh (Ill.) said he did not want to be a “prop” for Obama’s speech, and held a town-hall meeting back in his district in Illinois.
Rep. Paul Broun (R-Ga.) stayed in Washington — but he also stayed away from the chamber.
He hosted a “town hall” on Twitter instead. “This is obviously political grandstanding and class warfare,” Broun tweeted, when Obama said it wasn’t.
Afterward, many said that they were surprised by the aggressive tone that Obama chose.
Senate Republican leaders viewed the speech as the most defiant he has delivered to a joint session of Congress — his fifth in the last 2 1/2 years.
“It was designed to prove to his base that he’s a strong leader,” Sen. John Thune (S.D.), the No. 4 GOP leader, said afterward. “He projected an intensity we haven’t seen in previous speeches.”
The Republicans who had put so much thought into how to be an audience discovered that they might not have been Obama’s audience after all.
“I really feel like it was an aggressive tone,” Rep. Adam Kinzinger (Ill.), a freshman, said afterward.
“He was out there saying ‘Pass the bill’ before he began discussing what was in the bill,” Kinzinger said. “And you had half of Congress get up and clap. . . . It was a little bit of a fighting speech.”
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Staff writers Felicia Sonmez and Paul Kane contributed to this report.