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Address Elicits Varied Responses in GOP

Dunn and Largent Reps. Jennifer Dunn (Wash.), left, and Steve Largent (Okla.) deliver the Republican response to President Clinton's Tuesday night address. (AP)

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  • By Guy Gugliotta and Juliet Eilperin
    Washington Post Staff Writers
    Wednesday, January 20, 1999; Page A11

    To applaud or not to applaud: that was the question for Republicans watching President Clinton's State of the Union speech.

    For many, it appeared to be an easy decision. House Majority Leader Richard K. Armey (R-Tex.) and Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) sat stiffly and clapped for the bomber pilot, Sammy Sosa and Rosa Parks, and that was about it. Rep. Joe Barton (R-Tex.) applauded for Hillary Clinton and equal pay for men and women.

    Sen. Robert C. Smith (R-N.H.), who had decided earlier in the day not to attend, changed his mind and showed up "because it would be an affront to the presidency not to go," his spokeswoman said. He sat with a vacant look on his face and his arms crossed.

    A handful of House Republicans skipped the speech out of protest, but for the most part congressional Republicans were polite, if cool, in their response to Clinton last night. While their Democratic colleagues interrupted the president with applause more than 100 times, at times extravagantly, Republicans largely watched the 77-minute speech with studied detachment.

    Even though Clinton's impeachment trial was on everyone's mind, the GOP had plenty to dislike in a speech they branded as a return to the Democrats' bad old tax-and-spend days. Democrats, for their part, had plenty to applaud in a speech they called "wide-ranging" and "comprehensive."

    Still, Barton said he was "self-conscious." Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.) acknowledged that it was "kind of surreal" to be listening to the president of the United States in the same place where the House had impeached him exactly one month earlier.

    And now that the Senate is trying to decide whether to throw him out of office, there were some who suggested that the setting and the speech were simply tacky. "It was very awkward," said Senate Majority Whip Don Nickles (R-Okla.). "It wasn't in very good taste."

    But some Democrats suggested that the event simply harkened back to an earlier time. It was "almost a mirror image of a Ronald Reagan State of the Union," said House Democratic Caucus Chairman Martin Frost (Tex.), recalling how the then-GOP congressional minority applauded furiously for their president while the Democrats sat on their hands.

    Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) said she "felt sorry for the Republicans. What I saw was a lot of uncertainty. I saw Republicans who made attempts to stand and sat down when they didn't see any others standing."

    Few Republicans would acknowledge that. Davis said he had "no problem" standing to applaud "17 times, but not 30" as the Democrats wished. He suggested the Democrats applauded often simply in hopes of embarrassing the Republicans.

    For many Republicans – perhaps the majority – not clapping was not a problem. Most of those interviewed disagreed with most, if not all, of what Clinton outlined in his speech.

    "It's not very constructive," Nickles said. "The era of big government is not over. The speech contained more new spending – humongous new spending – and new programs that are going to add trillions of dollars. Most of it's not going anywhere."

    Conservative Rep. Mark Edward Souder (R-Ind.) accused Clinton of needlessly "throwing down the gauntlet between parties. Instead of reaching out and saying, 'We have to work together,' he gave a divisive speech."

    But Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) said Clinton had put forward a "terrific agenda – very family- and community-oriented." Frost called the speech "ambitious . . . he touched just about every issue."

    A few Republicans – including some from the Washington area – offered praise for Clinton's efforts last night. "He demonstrated, I think, presidential leadership," said Rep. Constance A. Morella (R-Md.), who was singled out by Clinton in a light moment in the speech when she alone stood to applaud his initiatives to solve the Year 2000 computer problem.

    And Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.) said Clinton gave a "good speech" under difficult circumstances. "I guess what I was thinking was to what heights this man could have risen if he had not brought on himself these tragic problems" that led to his trial by the Senate, Warner added.

    For a small number of Republicans, the perfect solution to the impeachment dilemma was simply not to show up. Rep. Henry J. Hyde (Ill.), leading the Republican prosecution in the Senate impeachment trial, watched Clinton's speech from home. Rep. Robert L. Barr Jr. (R-Ga.), another member of the prosecution team, boycotted the speech, but showed up for interviews afterward.

    Reps. Robert Schaffer (R-Colo.) and John Shadegg (R-Ariz.) sent a letter to colleagues last week arguing that they should skip the speech because Clinton "is demonstrating his lack of respect for the Congress and its legitimate role."

    But Schaffer had few illusions that his absence would be noticed: "What happens tonight is Congress and the president coming together to send a message there's some semblance of normalcy in Washington, and the detestable conduct of the president is somehow tolerated," he said. "The president doesn't care and nobody cares. The theatrical production is going to go on unimpeded."

    Staff writers Spencer S. Hsu and Helen Dewar contributed to this report.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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