Odd Couples

Odd Couples

Odd Couples

Weigel
Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Jan. 25 2011 11:51 PM

Odd Couples

Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., was basking in praise for a job well done. It was his idea, floated 13 days ago, for Democrats and Republicans to sit together at the State of the Union. It caught on to a nearly ludicrous degree. Inside the House, it was harder to find a block of partisans sitting together than a motley group of people who never agreed with one another -- Marco Rubio and Al Franken, John Cornyn and Patty Murray, Peter King and Charlie Rangel.

"Here's the guy bringing the peace!" said Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis, embracing Udall as they left the chamber. "Getting everybody to sit together, huh?"

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a reporter for the Washington Post. 

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Udall took the compliment, then took, from me, the umpteenth question on the Meaning of bipartisan seating.

 "It set the right tone," he said. "I think it's a tradition that's worth continuing. I sat next to Jim DeMint. He and I had fun discussing the topics about which we agreed and disagreed. He said, 'I got to sit this one out,' at one point. When the president talked about earmarks, he said, 'I've got to stand for this one!' I think what it means..."

Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.), walking by, broke into the conversation.

"Oh, by the way!" said Weiner. "Thank your cousin for this dopey idea!" Weiner had been seated next to King and Rangel.

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"It was my idea!" said Udall. Weiner had confused the senator with his cousin Tom Udall, a senator from New Mexico.

"Yours?" said Weiner. "Baaaaaaah!"

Udall laughed at Weiner's parting jeer. "There goes the loudmouth caucus!"

The great seating shake-up of 2011, a response to the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson, was a great hook for what is almost inevitably a pseudo-event. President Obama's 6000-plus word speech made a happy reference to it; before and after the president entered the room, members riffed with reporters about whether they'd just engineered a tone change.

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Here's the problem: Tone only gets you so far. Tone dictated that the members of the House and Senate who listened to the president rose and applauded more erratically, less frequently, than they did when they were lined up in red and blue teams facing one another. And that tone had mixed results for the president. There were long stretches of the speech that might have generated ovations in the old set-up -- a protracted section about the end of the Iraq War, a metaphor about infrastructure cuts being like taking the engine out of an airplane -- that lazed on the page.

But who remembers applause lines? Apart from Bill Clinton's 1995 cave-in, his declaration that the "era of big government is over," who remembers any lines from State of the Union speeches? The function of a speech like this, the first address to a newly hostile Congress, is to test how far a president will go to defend his agenda or assume the other party's agenda. As President Obama's speech went on, the tone that mattered was his own, defiant one. He did what worked when he ran for president in 2008. He used conservative language to sell liberalism with few limits. 

It took some time for the audience to react to this. After a preamble about the shooting in Tucson and the tax cut deal, Obama threaded an argument for more government spending. It was subtle, but Republicans are attuned to such things. "Because it's not always profitable for companies to invest in basic research," said the president, "throughout our history, our government has provided cutting-edge scientists and inventors with the support that they need." Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Tex.), the fourth-ranking Republican in the House, visibly sighed. He saw a long defense of spending coming.

Along it came. The president called for a "Sputnik moment," for more infrastructure and research spending to compete with China and India. (A year ago, the president cut the budget for manned space programs against the pleas of Neil Armstrong, but that's sort of a sidebar.) He floated some ways to pay for this. "I'm asking Congress to eliminate the billions in taxpayer dollars we currently give to oil companies," he said. An unidentified member -- presumably one of the Republicans who were growing more skeptical -- muttered "they're all international!"

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At the halfway point of the speech it was difficult to spot Republicans who could stomach it. Rubio and Franken made a brilliant contrast. Franken, who has been critical of the White House's messaging and priorities (he hated the tax deal) since arriving in Washington, repeatedly sprung up for ovations. Rubio was expressionless, leaning in his seat a little, unwilling to applaud any of the conservative rhetoric that Obama used to sell his policies. Obama pledged to sign a repeal of a regulatory rule in the health care bill that Republicans despise, "an unnecessary bookkeeping burden on small businesses." No reaction from Rubio, little from other Republicans.

And why applaud at any of this? A few changes that Republicans could push through, some solid support for tax reform, and even spending caps -- none of that distracted from the president's praise of infrastructure spending that the GOP is eager to scale back, or an unwillingness to meet the party halfway on real cuts.

When the speech ended, I started talking to Republicans about that element of the address. Where were the cuts?

"I think Obama is moving to the middle," said freshman Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-Tex.), "and I think that's going to be great for this country. But I keep hearing this voice in my head, asking: 'Good idea. How are we going to pay for it?'"

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Rep. Scott Rigell (R-Va.), another freshman, started off the same way, with praise for the presidential tone followed by a reminder that the president didn't actually say much.

"It doesn't capture the severity and the risk we're facing in this country," said Rigell. "In contrast to that, every week we've been here in Congress, we have voted on a measure that would reduce federal spending. I think you'll see, over time, that consistent and wise approach to federal spending."

Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), a six-term member who has to strain not to smile, strained when talking about the speech. His row of seats had been alternated by party, a tribute to Gabrielle Giffords. The chair next to him was empty, another tribute. No problem with tone. Substance, though?

"It had its high points and its low points," said Flake. "The spending freeze, 5 percent at current levels? We've got to cut much deeper than that." The only highlight he heard was Obama's pledge to veto any budget with earmarks. "That's the acid test."

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I also talked to Rep. Sean Duffy (R-Wisc.), a freshman who holds the seat held for 42 years by former Appropriations Chairman Dave Obey. He liked the tone, but there was that stubborn ideology to deal with.

"I was happy that he at least mentioned entitlements," said Duffy. "We have to have a bipartisan conversation on Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security." The problem was all of the time the president spent talking about investment. Sure, he framed it as patriotism, as Sputnik, but that's what he'd been doing since 2009.

"We invested" -- Duffy made scare quotes with his hands -- "'invested,' with quotes, a trillion dollars. What did we get from it? That's a code word for stimulus spending. We have our education funds, we have our transportation funds, and he's talking about going above and beyond that. I'm going to hear him out on how he thinks that will stimulate our economy, but our families are hurting."

There's more agreement about that last thought than there was about how fun bipartisan seating turned out to be. There's also no agreement about how to fix it.

David Weigel is a reporter for the Washington Post.