Republicans in Congress moved quickly Wednesday to reject many of President Obama’s proposals from the State of the Union address — and invited the prime minister of Israel to rebut Obama’s Iran policy from the same congressional podium next month.
That invitation to address Congress, extended by House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, marked a sharp rejection of Obama’s plea for Congress to stay out of negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program. If Congress votes to sanction Iran, Obama had warned, it could upset delicate and long-running talks.
Boehner said he would ignore the president’s demand, taking the unusual step of inviting a foreign leader directly into an American political debate.
Obama “expects us to stand idly by and do nothing while he cuts a bad deal with Iran,” Boehner told fellow Republicans at a closed-door meeting Wednesday morning, according remarks provided by a senior GOP aide. “Two words: ‘Hell no!’ . . . We’re going to do no such thing.”
Boehner also told reporters Wednesday morning that he did not speak with Obama before inviting Netanyahu to address Congress.
“I did not consult the White House,” said Boehner, who added that Congress “can make this decision on its own.”
He dismissed the suggestion that he was needling the president.
“I don’t believe that I’m poking anyone in the eye,” he said. “There is a serious threat that exists in the world. And the president last night kind of papered over it.”
The invitation to Netanyahu was a departure from normal procedure, in which the executive branch — and not a legislative leader — would coordinate the visit of a head of state. The White House said the invitation was a breach of typical diplomatic protocol, according to the Associated Press.
The AP reported that White House spokesman Josh Earnest, traveling with the president to Idaho, said the administration would “reserve judgment until we have an opportunity to speak to the Israelis about their plans for the trip and about what he plans to say.”
Also Wednesday, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee — now, like the rest of the Senate, under Republican control — held a long-scheduled hearing about the possibility of imposing sanctions on Iran. At that meeting, a prominent Democrat, New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez, criticized the Obama administration for not being tough enough on Iran.
“I have to be honest with you,” Menendez said, “the more I hear from the administration and its quotes, the more it sounds like talking points that come straight out of Tehran.”
The nose-thumbing dissent from Republicans in Congress was a sharp reaction to Tuesday night, when Obama struck a triumphant and confident tone during his address (and protocol required Republicans to stay mostly silent).
“America, for all that we’ve endured; for all the grit and hard work required to come back; for all the tasks that lie ahead, know this: The shadow of crisis has passed,” Obama said in his sixth State of the Union address to the nation and a joint session of Congress in the House chamber.
He also delivered a stinging rebuke when Republicans jokingly applauded after Obama noted that he had run his last campaign. The president quipped: “I know because I won both of them.”
But, on Wednesday, Republicans seemed eager to remind Obama that they had won the most recent elections — and decisively, too. The GOP now controls both houses of Congress, and its leaders seemed unlikely to seek compromise with the outgoing president over issues like Iran, immigration and taxation.
“All the president really offered last night was more taxes, more government, more of the same approach that has failed the middle class for decades,” Boehner said in a news conference on Wednesday. “These just aren’t the wrong policies, they’re the wrong priorities.”
The Republicans criticized Obama’s proposal to raise taxes on wealthy Americans and lambasted him for threatening to block legislation to authorize construction the Keystone XL Pipeline and alter the federal health-care laws, among other things.
“Veto threats and fantasy land proposals from the White House will not distract the people’s House from the people’s priorities,” Boehner said.
There were some glimmers of bipartisan hope: Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) said he hoped to take up the president’s idea of cooperation on cybersecurity. And new House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) said in a TV interview that he hoped to find common ground on taxes and trade.
“We’ll see if we can get a tax reform package done. I’m glad that he sort of held back on the partisanship and demagoguery,” Ryan said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” “I guess I’d say in his speech he dialed it down a bit from what he — we’re used to seeing more divisive, partisan speeches from the president. He didn’t do that much. I think that’s a good thing.
On Wednesday, Obama was headed to Idaho, a deep-red state he hasn’t visited since becoming president, to follow up on his speech.
Before Tuesday night, the president had been cautious over the past two years not to gloat over news of fitful economic growth, mindful that the economy remained tenuous and public confidence uneasy. But with the jobless rate well below 6 percent, the stock market nearing record highs and his job-approval ratings rebounding, Obama dropped his veneer of reserve and appeared to delight in having proved his critics wrong.
“At every step, we were told our goals were misguided or too ambitious, that we would crush jobs and explode deficits,” he said. “Instead, we’ve seen the fastest economic growth in over a decade, our deficits cut by two-thirds, a stock market that has doubled, and health-care inflation at its lowest rate in 50 years.”
“So the verdict is clear,” Obama said.
At times Tuesday, Obama chided Republicans to help improve Washington’s political discourse. He harked back to the themes of national unity that helped him get elected in the first place in 2008 and called for more bipartisan cooperation on key issues.
He framed portions of his address around a letter he received from a woman in Minneapolis named Rebekah Erler, who said that she and her husband struggled to pay bills during the recession shortly after they were married and had a son.
“We are a strong, tightknit family who has made it through some very, very hard times,” Obama said, quoting a letter from Erler, whom he visited during a trip to the Midwest last summer. She was among the guests in first lady Michelle Obama’s box.
The president said Erler’s story was a metaphor for the nation’s. “It’s been your effort and resilience that has made it possible for our country to emerge stronger,” Obama said. “Fifteen years into this new century, we have picked ourselves up, dusted ourselves off, and begun again the work of remaking America. We have laid a new foundation. A brighter future is ours to write.”
In the wake of the GOP rout in the midterms, the president responded by announcing a series of aggressive executive actions, including measures to protect millions of illegal immigrants from deportation, to work toward reestablishing diplomatic relations with Cuba and to strike a climate agreement with China.
Though the White House knew the ideas have a slim chance of being approved by lawmakers, the point was to start a debate on Obama’s terms. And the president and his advisers were determined to begin to frame his legacy as having delivered on his promise to improve the lives of ordinary Americans.
The president acknowledged that he had heard the political pundits declare since he took office six years ago that he had failed to make good on his vision at a time when “our politics seems more divided than ever. It’s held up as proof not just of my own flaws — of which there are many — but also as proof that the vision itself is misguided, and naive.”
To the contrary, Obama insisted, as he pledged to keep working to change Washington, even as he was, in many ways, declaring victory over his rivals.
“I want this chamber, I want this city, to reflect the truth,” he said, “that for all our blind spots and shortcomings, we are a people with the strength and generosity of spirit to bridge divides, to unite in common effort.”