political gridlock

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.

Merkley Lauds Senate Filibuster Deal

Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley lauded a deal that paved the way for Senate confirmation of executive branch appointees, which he called a step in the right direction of filibuster reform.The U.S. Senate reached a compromise that avoided a partisan clash over filibuster delays of White House nominees, which threatened to plunge the upper chamber into deeper political gridlock.

The deal was applauded by Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley, who has championed filibuster reform. He said allowing simple up or down votes on presidential appointees to executive branch posts is a step toward historical normalcy in how the Senate treats confirmations.

The deal, which was reached after an unusual meeting of senators in the Old Senate Chamber where Henry Clay achieved his famous compromise delaying civil war, held as 17 GOP senators voted to end a silent filibuster blocking confirmation of Richard Cordray, President Obama's choice to lead the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Cordray, who has been in the job on an acting basis, was formally confirmed later on a 66-34 vote.

Brokered in part by Arizona Republican Senator John McCain, the compromise opens the door to Senate approval of several stalled Obama White House nominees on the National Labor Relations Board and to lead the Labor Department, Environmental Protection Agency and Export-Import Bank.

Road Congestion and Political Gridlock

The cost of congestion continues to rise, but not enough apparently to break political gridlock on how to modernize, expand and diversify the nation's aging transportation system.A new report says bumper-to-bumper congestion on American roads and highways cost the economy $121 billion in 2011 in lost hours of work and wasted fuel. The cost of congestion is predicted to rise to almost $200 billion by 2020.

The report says Portland has the sixth worst commutes in the country, resulting from a relatively small, circular freeway system that bunches up traffic, especially when there are multiple accidents or bad weather conditions. Portlanders drive fewer miles, one of the report authors says, but travel times can be unreliable and often stressful.

Meanwhile, political gridlock in the nation's capital and many state legislatures is blocking measures to invest in roads and bridges. Roll Call's John Boyd reports President Obama backed off his call for new money for transportation in negotiations to avoid the fiscal cliff. Senators from both political parties, Boyd adds, flirted with a transportation funding package in the lame duck session last year, but gave up.

While motorists dislike congestion, they appear to hate proposals to raise the gas tax, switch to a mileage-based fee, resort to toll-ways or pay in some manner for road use if they drive an alternative fuel vehicle. An sudden, sharp jump in gas prices in the last two weeks hasn't made motorists less grumpy.

Happy Days in Salem

The picture of Governor John Kitzhaber praising legislators for a productive session last week stood in stark contrast to President Obama admonishing Congress to cancel its holiday recess plans and embattled governors in other states. It even was a stark contrast to the last time Kitzhaber was governor and famously pronounced Oregon was ungovernable.

Oregon faced a daunting budget deficit and a politically dicey split House with 30 Democrats and 30 Republicans. Yet the 2011 Oregon legislative session proceeded without much bickering and with some notable results. Public unions weren't pilloried and wealthy Oregonians and businesses weren't bashed en route to balancing the state's budget for the next two years. The Republican and Democratic House co-speakers toured the state together and proclaimed after adjournment they were fast friends.

Sharply different images have emerged from other states. Members of Wisconsin's Senate skipped the state to avoid voting for a bill stripping public employees of their collective bargaining rights. Minnesota's state government HAS shut down because of a budget impasse. Democratic California Governor Jerry Brown vetoed a budget approved by a Democratically controlled legislature.

Looming large is the showdown on Capitol Hill over extending the federal debt ceiling before August 2, when Treasury officials warn the United States could begin defaulting on its debts. It has all the elements of a partisan food fight, with Republicans refusing to accept a compromise that closes tax loopholes and Democrats unwilling to budge on deeper spending cuts with more revenue.