immigration

Dark Corners, New Lights Loom for Nation’s Capital

As the new year nears, darker economic possibilities lurk as a result of President Trump’s trade war with China, his threats to shut down the US-Mexican border and his kneecapping of Prime Minister Theresa May’s attempt to negotiate an exit from the European Union. The new year means Democrats regain control of the House, but a new bright light from Queens is already causing a stir in the nation’s capital as she pushes her agenda, fends off critics and waits for the keys to her congressional office.

As the new year nears, darker economic possibilities lurk as a result of President Trump’s trade war with China, his threats to shut down the US-Mexican border and his kneecapping of Prime Minister Theresa May’s attempt to negotiate an exit from the European Union. The new year means Democrats regain control of the House, but a new bright light from Queens is already causing a stir in the nation’s capital as she pushes her agenda, fends off critics and waits for the keys to her congressional office.

Congress returned for its lame duck session and faces a December 7 deadline to pass a spending bill to avoid a partial federal government shutdown. However, deeper economic rumblings presage more difficult times ahead, and there is a new tweeter in town.

General Motors stunned its workforce – and the White House – with a pre-holiday announcement that more than 14,000 employees will be laid off and five factories (four in the United States and one in Canada) will be shuttered. The news undermines President Trump’s boast that his economic policies will bring manufacturing jobs back to America. GM said it was restructuring as Americans abandon passenger cars and Trump’s tariffs eat into profitability.

Trump is threatening to shut down the US-Mexican border over continuing attempts by thousands of migrants to enter the United States and seek asylum. Even though US law permits migrants to enter the nation legally at ports of entry and apply for asylum, Trump is trying to prevent them from gaining entry, including use of force such as tear gas. A complete shutdown of the border would have severe economic consequences on the daily $1.7 billion movement of goods between the two countries.

A longer-term threat involves the United Kingdom’s unexecuted exit from the European Union. Prime Minister Theresa May has negotiated a complex pull-out deal that still must be approved next month by the British Parliament, which is not a foregone conclusion. Trump weighed in and undercut May’s bargaining position by raising doubt the agreement with the EU would permit a US-British bilateral trade deal, something the prime minister has touted as a positive payoff for Brexit. British officials deny the EU-exit agreement bars Britain from entering into bilateral trade deals.

Congresswoman-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez hasn’t waited for the keys to her congressional office to stir the waters in DC with forceful advocacy of her progressive agenda and a savvy pushback to conservatives who seem mesmerized by her growing national prominence as a symbol of the new wave of women and more diverse political representatives.

Congresswoman-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez hasn’t waited for the keys to her congressional office to stir the waters in DC with forceful advocacy of her progressive agenda and a savvy pushback to conservatives who seem mesmerized by her growing national prominence as a symbol of the new wave of women and more diverse political representatives.

The United States is still on a glide path to impose even more tariffs on Chinese goods on January 1, which would likely result in reciprocal tariffs on US exports to China. Trump trade officials insist China must act to end what amounts to an escalating trade war. Ahead of a summit this week, Trump’s officials also poured cold water on a suggestion that the G20 group of industrialized nations could play a role in resolving the dispute. For its part, China says it is opening up key markets such as banks, automobiles, aircraft, telecommunications and medical. It calls many US demands “unrealistic.”

While no one is exactly predicting an economic downturn, there are some cracks surfacing in the current economic boom. The US stock market has plunged from its dizzying record heights. There has been a slight uptick in unemployment filing. Interest rates continue to inch up, which could cool hot housing markets. Millennial trends away from car and homebuying are beginning to disrupt traditional industries and their extensive supply chains. In addition, China’s economy may be weaker than most economists thought. All of which suggests the international economy may be fragile and capable of slowing US economic growth.

Another drag on the US economy is higher-than-promised national deficits, mostly attributable to the GOP-backed tax cut. The beneficial effects of the tax cut may be mostly used up as the country heads into a new year.

In January, Democrats regain control of the House, which may add more complications to charting an economic path to avoid a downturn.

Then there is Congresswoman-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who as the youngest member of the new Congress is already stirring the DC pot with Twitter posts about Medicare-for-All, a Green New Deal, immigration and reducing student college loan debt. She has fended off criticism from conservatives, who have singled her out because of her potential political stardom. She has tried to avoid irking Democratic leaders while still extoling her more left-leaning positions (she announced she will vote for Nancy Pelosi as Speaker). She has traded tweets with Senator Lindsey Graham and the tweeter-in-chief. 

Ocasio-Cortez, who started the year working bar in New York, is part of a wave of more diverse congressional newcomers, but her quick rise to political prominence – matched by her quick wit and knowledge of social media – make her a force beyond her years, experience or congressional seniority.

 

GOP, Dems in Turmoil Over Midterm Voter Pitches

To regain political power in the midterm elections, Democrats need to reconnect with American workers who have gradually lost confidence in the party of the New Deal and the Great Society, according to a veteran Democratic political strategist. Republicans have to find a way to tout their tax plan that is sagging in popularity.

To regain political power in the midterm elections, Democrats need to reconnect with American workers who have gradually lost confidence in the party of the New Deal and the Great Society, according to a veteran Democratic political strategist. Republicans have to find a way to tout their tax plan that is sagging in popularity.

Heading into pivotal midterm elections this fall, Republicans and Democrats are both in turmoil over their value propositions to voters. Republicans may not be able to run on their record and Democrats are still searching for a platform with political traction.

Congressional Republicans planned to campaign based on a popular tax cut. However, the GOP tax cut faces sinking support, including in so-called Trump country as evidenced by a recent special House election in Pennsylvania that a Democrat captured.

Now congressional Republicans have an immigration mess on their hands. Already deeply divided, the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy that separated children from their asylum-seeking parents at the border has apparently deepened the divide. House GOP leadership canceled plans last week to vote on a pair of immigration measures until after the November midterm election.

GOP congressmen face another political problem – backlash from their base if they criticize President Trump, as conservative voters seem bent on asserting at the ballot box that it is now the Trump Party, not a big-tent Republican Party.

Democrats aren’t any better off. They have a smoldering debate among progressives and centrists. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has been demonized and molded into a rallying cry for conservatives. Trump has pummeled Democrats as obstructionists. There is confusion about whether to attack or ignore Trump and what themes will work in the midterm elections to flip control of the House and not lose ground in the Senate where the GOP holds a slim 51-49 margin.

In steps Jake Sullivan, who has been a senior adviser to President Obama, Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton, with a keen read on where Democrats stand with voters and how they could earn their way back into power.

Sullivan argues in an essay published in Democracy: A Journal of Ideas that Democrats should realize public opinion is more conservative than liberals might hope on deeply divisive issues such as abortion, guns, immigration and race. Political pay dirt for Democrats, Sullivan says, lies in left-of-center economic issues such as taxation, health care, minimum wage and education funding.

“Just as the Great Depression discredited the ideas of the pre-New Deal conservatives who fought for total laissez-faire outcomes in both the political branches and the courts, so the Great Recession once again laid bare the failure of our government to protect its citizens from unchecked market excess,” Sullivan writes. “There has been a delayed reaction this time around, but people have begun to see more clearly not only the flaws of our public and private institutions that contributed to the financial crisis, but also the decades of rising inequality and income stagnation that came before — and the uneven recovery that followed. Our politics are in the process of adjusting to this new reality.”

In the face of political maps showing a lot of red, Sullivan insists “There’s something profound happening in American politics right now. A tide is moving. The center of gravity is shifting. Democrats have a rare opportunity to set bold goals and meet them. By offering new ideas based on tried and true principles –taking the big, ambitious governing style that used to define our party and our politics and putting it to work to meet the challenges of our time – we can achieve growth and fairness, innovation and equality.” 

He added, “Moments like this don’t come around that often in history. Democrats must seize this one.”

The four pillars of his advice to Democrats are:

  • Recognize that present-day jobs are as or more valuable than future jobs, which demands rethinking the contemporary workplace to ensure health insurance coverage, fair wages, antic-discrimination and the right to unionize.
  • Promote policies that reflect changing family structures with more two wage-earning parents, single mother-led households, college students moving back home and a ballooning older adult population that is living longer.
  • Talk about workers in sectors beyond manufacturing in fields such as health care and the service economy and promote workplace, tax and educational policies that sustain the American Dream, while addressing serious issues like opioid addiction.
  • Build alliances with 21st century entrepreneurial businesses to pursue tax, trade and antitrust policies in a globalized economy that keep America competitive and increase income security for US workers.

Republicans have a clearer litany of their policy views – lower taxes, fewer regulations, anti-abortion, free trade and conservative judges. However, like any party in power, the GOP has to defend what it has done – or not done – as well as it what it stands for.

Sullivan’s prescription for Democrats may be the clearest expression of what Democrats could wield to win the seats in Congress and state legislatures they need to gain back power they have gradually lost in the past decade as worker confidence has waned.

 

Republicans Hold Their Breath; Democrats Keep Debating Themselves

The 2018 midterm election is just six months away, with congressional Republicans eager to defend their record in the face of unpredictable Trump tweets and Democrats still groping for the right mix of messages that will move America.

The 2018 midterm election is just six months away, with congressional Republicans eager to defend their record in the face of unpredictable Trump tweets and Democrats still groping for the right mix of messages that will move America.

With the pivotal 2018 midterm elections less than six months away, it is timely to assess likely Republican and Democratic campaign themes. They aren’t exactly obvious. And neither is the election outcome, which could be a blue wave or red dawn.

The one sure thing is that Republican candidates will be tethered to President Trump, whether they like it or not. His zig-zags on trade, immigration and diplomacy will vex GOP incumbents and hopefuls, especially in Farm and Rust Belt states. Trump’s doubling-down on culture war issues will buoy social conservatives and complicate campaigns for Republicans running in swing districts or blue states.

Democrats appear to be still arguing over their 2018 themes. Do they run against Trump and tout the prospect of his impeachment? Or do they focus on bread-and-butter issues such as health care, income security and retooling job training? And what about the ongoing Russia investigation?

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told NPR last week congressional Republicans should run on their record. “This is the best year and a half for right-of-center policies since I've been here,” he said. “Everything from tax relief, to repealing the individual mandate to 15 uses of the Congressional Review Act. We mentioned the courts, comprehensive tax reform.”

In the same interview, McConnell admitted the GOP faces a stiff wind to hold on to one or both houses of Congress. That’s largely because of the shadow cast by the Robert Mueller investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election, potential Trump campaign collusion with Kremlin-connected Russians and presidential obstruction of justice. The failure to reach a deal on immigration – from an expanded border wall to protections for DREAMers who were brought to the United States illegally by their parents, but have grown up in America. Then there is Trump going off message, even on the issue of the importance of the 2018 mid-term elections. 

Democrats are torn by deep divisions, which have clouded their 2018 campaign messaging and eroded what once was a commanding leaded over Republicans. The progressive wing of the Democratic Party wants the campaign to center on new initiatives such as universal health care insurance, a federal jobs guarantee, tougher enforcement of anti-trust regulations and allowing the US Post Office to enter the consumer lending business. Center-left Democrats worry that isn’t the political chemistry to turn red states into blue ones. In early-state contested primaries, progressive candidates seem to be carrying the day, but the question remains whether they can win in November.

If Democrats have an ace up their sleeve, it is the number of women running for office.

If Democrats weren’t confused enough, conservative commentators have egged them on, with political cracks about House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and identity politics.

The gang at FiveThirtyEight conducted an online chat about midterm election themes. Micah Cohen, the politics editor, put government corruption and Trump’s behavior at the top of his list and downplayed trade, the economy, education, Social Security and the Russian investigation. Nate Silver, the creator and editor of FiveThirtyEight, said Democrats should concentrate on health care, the Russian investigation and gun control because they are tangible issues. Senior political writer Claire Malone recommended centering on Trump administration corruption, ethical lapses and rollbacks of environmental and consumer protection.

Polling continues to show that Trump’s political base remains solid, even though there are some cracks beginning to appear among college-educated women and disaffected union workers. The same is true on the Democratic side, which has been energized by Trump policies and congressional attempts to repeal Obamacare. Republicans need to hold on to their moderates while Democrats need to hold on to their progressives. Both parties need to appeal to unaffiliated voters who think the country isn’t moving in the right direction and GOP control of all the levers of federal power hasn’t moved in the country in the right direction.

While the national stakes in the election are clear – control of the House and Senate, most congressional elections tend to boil down to local issues and candidates. But national politics does play a role. Texas Senator Ted Cruz’ role in a federal government shutdown earned him an unusually well-funded Democratic opponent. Democratic Senator Jon Tester of Montana is facing a stiff re-election test in the face of criticism by Trump on Tester’s role in blocking his nominee to head the Veterans Administration. If Trump can pull off a verifiable deal to denuclearize North Korea, that could sway voters in the fall.

Only 48 out of 435 House seats are regarded as competitive by political experts. To regain control of the House, Democrats need to flip 25 GOP seats and not lose any of their incumbents. Democrats will likely concentrate on the 25 House districts that gave majorities to Hillary Clinton in 2016, but are held by Republicans. A 25-seat switch in the midterm election following a presidential election is not uncommon historically.

Democratic chances to regain control of the Senate, which the GOP holds by a slim 51-49 margin, are complicated because they have far more incumbents to defends. Democratic hopes go out the window if they lose seats they hold now in West Virginia, Indiana, Missouri and Montana. Their best hopes to gain seats are in Nevada, Arizona, North Dakota and Tennessee,

Meanwhile, congressional Republican candidates will be holding their breath about the next Trump tweetstorm and Democrats will continue debating how to approach the American electorate as a preferred alternative to GOP control. For Republicans, six months can be like infinity. For Democrats, six months can go by in a blink of the eye.

 

Two Under-the-Radar Issues Attract Solutions, Not Slogans

As Congress bogs down on how to resolve immigration and gun violence challenges, no less serious problems of sex trafficking and paid family leave have attracted solution-searching instead of sloganeering and raise hopes for bipartisan compromises that could pass into law before the end of this year.

As Congress bogs down on how to resolve immigration and gun violence challenges, no less serious problems of sex trafficking and paid family leave have attracted solution-searching instead of sloganeering and raise hopes for bipartisan compromises that could pass into law before the end of this year.

As appropriations, immigration and guns dominate congressional headlines, two issues seem to be picking up bipartisan traction on Capitol Hill – paid family leave and sex trafficking.

President Trump has opened the door to paid family leave legislation. First daughter Ivanka Trump and GOP Senator Marco Rubio are teaming up on a proposal that would allow people to tap into their future Social Security benefits to pay for family leave. Congressional Democrats are pushing a more aggressive plan that would increase employee and employer payroll taxes to cover the cost of paid family leave.

Five states, including Washington, already require paid family leave. Eight states, including Oregon, have expanded the length of unpaid family leave. Most US workers are covered by the Family Medical Leave Act, which allows up to 12 weeks of unpaid time off for a newborn child or care for an aging parent. The City of New York expanded its family leave policy to include recuperation from domestic abuse.

Paid family leave is an issue that has attracted bipartisan interest because it impacts business productivity, employee satisfaction and family structure. The conservative American Enterprise Institute and the liberal Brookings Institution undertook a joint look at the issue of paid family leave and have been  blogging  about what they jointly concluded for the past year.

Paid family leave is an issue that has attracted bipartisan interest because it impacts business productivity, employee satisfaction and family structure. The conservative American Enterprise Institute and the liberal Brookings Institution undertook a joint look at the issue of paid family leave and have been blogging about what they jointly concluded for the past year.

Supporters of paid family leave point to data showing only 14 percent of US workers have access to paid family leave through their employers. Most employees, they suggest, cannot afford to take off long amounts of unpaid leave. 

Opponents say mandating paid family leave will make it more expensive to hire employees and lead to fewer jobs. Businesses are caught in the middle and disapprove of what has become a patchwork of family leave policies state to state and, in some cases, community to community.

NPR ran a story that included a vignette about Joe Fain, a Washington state senator, who took an unpaid leave when his son was born and became an advocate for the benefit. At the time, the City of Seattle had adopted expanded leave policies, which led businesses to push the state legislature to act. Fain says, in the same way, states are now pushing for federal action.

While the various sides of this issue aren’t close to a compromise, there is broad agreement that paid family leave is important to getting newborns off to a good start and to helping families cope with illnesses by aging parents.

Senator Rob Portman, an Ohio Republican, is pushing hard for legislation to protect potential sex trafficking victims and make online websites liable if they enable sex trafficking. His bill, called Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act, has attracted 60 congressional cosponsors and is supported by law enforcement, civil rights and faith-based groups.

Portman says he became interested in the subject after meeting with Ohio constituents who described incidents of sex trafficking in their communities, in many cases associated with opioid abuse. Portman says sex trafficking is big business that has increased, despite tougher penalties, because of what he called the “ruthless efficiency” of the “dark side of the internet.” He blames an 850 percent increase in sex trafficking since 2015 on the “emergence of companies like Backpage.com, which probably has about 75 percent of the commercial sex traffic on one site.”

Some technology companies have pushed back on Portman’s cure of removing legal immunity for online platforms, claiming it would expose the companies behind those platforms to lawsuits for content their users post. Loss of legal immunity, they say, could chill continuing development and expansion of online platforms.

While paid family leave and sex trafficking solutions will require answering significant policy questions, they may provide Congress with an easier avenue to address serious social problems plaguing America than trying to reform immigration policy or agree on ways to stem gun violence. If nothing else, these complex issues have not been reduced to polarizing slogans, which is allowing for collaborative conversations and potential bipartisan compromises.

Murky Stew of Issues Face Congress as Election Season Approaches

Congress faces a daunting challenge to approve 12 appropriations bills before the March 23 deadline in the latest Continuing Resolution budget deal amid fiery debates over immigration and gun violence – and a fast-approaching primary election season in which both political parties will play to their respective bases.

Congress faces a daunting challenge to approve 12 appropriations bills before the March 23 deadline in the latest Continuing Resolution budget deal amid fiery debates over immigration and gun violence – and a fast-approaching primary election season in which both political parties will play to their respective bases.

Most Members of Congress are back in their states and districts for the President’s Day Recess, but here in DC leaders and staff are trying to make sense of the previous month’s legislative roller coaster and decide how to chart a path forward.

There are plenty of obstacles in the way – immigration, gun control and primary elections. The challenges Congress faces are a lot like the temptations of distracted driving. They will be trying to steer a final budget agreement to safe harbor, while fending off texts, tweets, marches and grandstanding that are sure to grab a lot of attention.

Over the last two weeks, Congress was able to avoid another government shutdown by passing a fifth short-term extension to March 23, increasing spending caps for FY18 and FY19 and debating, but failing to pass a comprehensive immigration bill out of the Senate. However, nothing has been fully resolved. 

Each of these three thorny items will need to be addressed or finalized over the coming weeks. It is likely these politically charged issues will start to intersect and cause further instability. Add to the mix the school shooting in Parkland, Florida along with related scheduled gun control marches in DC and the political landscape on Capitol Hill becomes even less predictable.

And that doesn’t factor in the effect of President Trump’s tweets.

Appropriators have been tasked with allocating an additional $63 billion to the 12 appropriations subcommittees that will be charged with writing a final FY18 budget by March 23. Bolstered spending should grease the skids for quick passage in Congress.

However, appropriations often get bogged down with controversial policy riders that can torpedo broad-based bipartisan deals. Gun control and immigration are two of the most highly charged political issues. It will be hard for both sides to restrain themselves and put a firewall between a final spending agreement and the enormous pressure to score points with their respective bases.

The final ingredient in the murky congressional stew is the 2018 primary election schedule that begins in less than a month and continues through mid-September. The earliest state primary will be held in Texas on March 6, just two weeks from now. Election activity will peak in June with 17 primaries. Oregon’s primary will be May 15.

Republicans are already feeling the pressure with GOP retirements nearly tripling those of Democrats (25 to 9). Historically, mid-term elections are bad for the party in charge of the White House and Republicans and Democrats will be looking for ways to mobilize their base. Immigration and guns are certainly two huge mobilizing forces for both sides.

At the end of the day, we don’t feel like these issues will torpedo the budget deal. However, this will be the biggest test for leaders on both sides of the aisle to steer the spending bill to safe harbor, while at the same time satisfying their respective constituents.

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Joel Rubin is a partner and leader of CFM’s federal affairs team based in Washington, DC. He has worked on Capitol Hill and now represents Pacific Northwest interests in Congress and with federal agencies.

 

Congress Faces Yet Another Spending Deadline

 In what might be an omen for this week on Capitol Hill as Congress faces yet another spending deadline, the train carrying Republicans to their West Virginia retreat site. Just as ominous, Democrats are scheduled to begin their 3-day retreat the day before this week’s deadline.

 In what might be an omen for this week on Capitol Hill as Congress faces yet another spending deadline, the train carrying Republicans to their West Virginia retreat site. Just as ominous, Democrats are scheduled to begin their 3-day retreat the day before this week’s deadline.

In the aftermath of President Trump’s first State of the Union Address and the hullabaloo over release of the GOP surveillance memo, the looming government spending deadline this Thursday almost slipped out of sight. Almost.

As bitter and battle-weary Members of Congress trudge back to Capitol Hill this week, the deadline will be anything but invisible. What’s hard to see is any compromise that can win enough support from Senate Democrats, House conservatives and the Trump White House. Before they resolve differences on spending, they need to agree on immigration.

Senate Democrats want protection for so-called Dreamers, but House conservatives object to granting them an eventual path to citizenship. Trump offered up long-term protection for Dreamers, but at the price of a $25 billion “trust fund” for his promised border wall, which Senate Democrats reject.

Republican Congressman Will Hurd, a former undercover CIA officer whose Texas congressional district includes the longest stretch of the US-Mexican border, has proposed a simple compromise, along with Democratic Congressman Pete Aguilar of California. Their proposal would protect Dreamers and provide for enhanced border security, but not necessarily a huge investment in a physical wall. It’s uncertain whether Trump or a majority of House Republicans would support their proposal.

immigration may be the roadblock to a compromise, but disagreements over spending, especially for defense and health care programs, are like a washed-out bridge. The inability to agree on spending in the current federal fiscal year has led to four continuing resolutions – stopgap funding measures that generally allow federal agencies to keep plugging along with the same budget as the previous year.

The disagreement isn’t just over on how to spend federal dollars, but how many federal dollars to spend. After Republicans pushed through a $1.5 trillion tax cut, which may add as much as $1 trillion to the federal deficit this year, House conservatives are wary of spending even more. Democrats are pressing for restoration of funding for community health centers and more generous disaster relief for states affected by hurricanes, floods and wildfires.

Stop-and-go spending authorization has prevented agencies from the Pentagon to the Centers for Disease Control to pursue new objectives and resulted in an added layer of government inefficiency. Defense Secretary James Mattis has warned that the inability of Congress to pass a budget has weakened US security.

While there is broad bipartisan agreement on the need for infrastructure investment, there is widespread disagreement on how much should come from direct federal spending – and how whatever level of funding is approved will be paid for. 

Since the three-day partial government shutdown that ended with another continuing resolution and the February 8 deadline, there isn’t much public evidence of productive negotiations. Most of last week was consumed by Trump’s speech and bitter partisan back-and-forth about the memo released by the House Intelligence Committee’s GOP majority. That’s not a great starting block for negotiations to avoid another government shutdown the end of this week.

Rep. Adam Schiff, the lead Democrat on the committee, said over the weekend he will press for a vote as soon as today on the Democratic rejoinder to Chairman Kevin Nunes’ memo. Nunes has hinted he may be working on additional memos that he says may show anti-Trump bias in the State Department.

Despite Trump’s plea for bipartisanship in his State of the Union speech, his administration continues to provide fodder to deepen partisan divides. He has virtually gutted the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, refused to impose congressionally approved sanctions on Russian oligarchs and watched as his appointee to lead the Centers for Disease Control resigned after disclosures that she bought and sold tobacco stocks.

Still hanging around, but as far in the shadows as before, is the need to increase the national debt ceiling. Treasury officials say congressional action is needed in February. GOP congressional leaders almost certainly need Democratic votes in both the House and Senate to approve a debt limit increase, but that may prove politically complicated as well with so many other higher profile disagreements.

It will be an interesting week on Capitol Hill, which Vox chided will be punctuated by Republican and Democratic caucus retreats on the weekends before and after the latest spending drop-dead date. Perhaps as an omen, the train carrying Republicans to their West Virginia retreat site ran into a garbage truck. Just as ominous, Democrats are set to begin their 3-day retreat in Maryland the day before the spending deadline. Don’t bet against yet another temporary continuing spending resolution, as well as more political bickering. On the bright side, the Winter Olympics start this week.

 

Picture of Gridlock

President Obama's State of the Union Address didn't appeal to Republicans, but may have been intended as the first salvo in the 2016 election.

President Obama's State of the Union Address didn't appeal to Republicans, but may have been intended as the first salvo in the 2016 election.

It was easy to spot who was who last night at President Obama's next-to-last State of the Union Address to Congress. The people standing up and cheering were fellow Democrats. The people sitting down were Republicans.

After the speech, GOP spokesmen said Obama needs a "reality check" because many of his proposals, such as raising taxes on wealthy Americans, won't fly in the new Congress controlled by Republicans. Democrats said Republicans can't admit that the economy is rolling and are unwilling to tackle issues such as wage stagnation that hobble middle and lower income Americans.

You could say the packed House chamber was the picture of gridlock in Washington, DC.

A close-up of that picture was visible as the TV cameras showed the respective reactions from Vice President Joe Biden and House Speaker John Boehner who were seated behind Obama during the speech. Biden nodded in agreement and rose repeatedly to applaud. Boehner clapped his hands tepidly a few times and mostly grimaced as Obama spoke.

Republicans say Obama failed to acknowledge voter repudiation of his policies that led the GOP to majorities in both the House and Senate. They also say he missed opportunities to identify areas of potential compromise, such as steps to strengthen Medicare.

Obama did cross swords with his own party by asking for fast-track authority to negotiate new international trade agreements in Europe and Asia, which many Republicans support. But he promised vetoes on legislation that tried to undo his executive actions on immigration.

Despite the closing section of Obama's speech where he said Washington is better than gridlock, there was little in his text or delivery to suggest he was willing to budge on his political priorities. Many observers called his speech the first salvo in the 2016 election.

When Obama mentioned he has no more election campaigns, some congressional Republicans applauded. Obama, with a smile on his face, shot back, "I know because I won both of them." The President also looked directly at the concentration of Republicans in the chamber when he ticked off positive economic indicators and said something to the effect of "That's good stuff."

For their part, Republicans invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to speak from the same podium as Obama did. Netanyahu has objected to the deal the Obama administration is trying to cut with Iran to prevent it from becoming a nuclear power. Boehner pointedly told reporters he extended the invitation to Netanyahu without notifying Obama.

The President's speech and Republican reactions follow what has become a political ritual. Now that political points have been made and battle lines drawn, it is still possible Obama and GOP congressional leaders can do some of the country's business.