Republican lawmakers said President Barack Obama risks antagonizing an already polarized Congress by threatening to use executive authority to make good on the policy agenda he will outline in his State of the Union address.
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said Obama is wrong to think he can bypass lawmakers if they don’t make legislative progress this year.
“Ronald Reagan didn’t think that and Bill Clinton didn’t think that,” McConnell said yesterday on Fox’s “Fox News Sunday” program. “Frequently, times of divided government are quite good times in terms of achieving things for the American people.”
McConnell said Obama erred since the 2010 elections that brought Republicans to power in the House by deciding to have “hung out on the left and tried to get what he wants through the bureaucracy, as opposed to moving to the political center.”
After failing to win congressional support last year for priorities such as revised immigration laws, raising the minimum wage and gun background checks, administration officials touted a backup strategy of executive action, even as a new Washington Post-ABC News poll showed 63 percent of Americans lack confidence in Obama’s ability to make the right decisions for the country’s future.
“The president sees this as the year of action, to work with Congress where he can and to bypass Congress where necessary to lift folks who want to come up into the middle class,” said White House spokesman Jay Carney in an interview on ABC’s “This Week” program yesterday.
The strategy risked antagonizing Republicans even before Obama gets his chance to make the case for his legislative agenda in a prime-time televised address on Jan. 28.
“It sounds vaguely like a threat and has a certain amount of arrogance,” said Senator Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican who draws support from the small-government Tea Party faction, in an interview on CNN’s “State of the Union” program.
Paul said Obama’s complaints about congressional gridlock were misplaced. “Welcome to the real world. It’s hard to get legislation passed,” he said.
The partisan rhetoric was tempered by predictions from both sides that it may be possible to reach some bipartisan deals this year.
Paul said there may be cross-party support for tax changes to encourage U.S. companies to bring profits home from overseas. He said he asked Obama to consider taxing overseas profits at 5 percent, with the revenue going to infrastructure.
Carney said the White House is “actually optimistic” about getting an immigration package to the president this year.
One of the biggest tests for cooperation between Obama and Republicans may come next month, when the federal government is again forecast to run out of money to pay its bills unless the federal debt ceiling is raised.
Senator Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican and Tea Party champion who helped trigger a government shutdown last year to protest Obama’s health-care law, signaled his willingness to begin a new fight over the debt ceiling. Obama has said the limit must be raised without any trade-offs.
“We shouldn’t just write a blank check,” Cruz said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” He said, “In the past, the debt ceiling has been the most effective leverage point for real structural reform.”
Senator Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, dismissed Cruz’s implied threat to hold up passage of a debt increase.
“I do not believe that Republican leaders will follow Ted Cruz over the cliff once again,” Schumer said on the same program. “I think they learned their lesson with the government shutdown.”
McConnell joined Cruz in suggesting that an increase in the debt limit won’t be passed without other provisions.
“For the president to ask for a clean debt ceiling, when we have a debt the size of the economy, is irresponsible,” McConnell said on Fox. “So we ought to discuss adding something to his request to raise the debt ceiling that does something about the debt -- or it produces at least something positive for our country.”
Obama’s address will likely frame much of the debate for the November mid-term elections that will determine political control of Congress for his final two years in office.
Republicans won the House majority in the 2010 elections, and since then have battled with Obama and the Democratic-controlled Senate over an array of issues, including government spending and raising the nation’s debt limit.
With nonpartisan political analysts favoring Republicans to retain their House majority, Obama last week made clear he plans to look for opportunities to sidestep Congress in pursuing his agenda.
“Where Congress is debating things and hasn’t been able to pull the trigger on stuff, my administration is going to move forward,” he said Jan. 23 at the White House.
White House Senior Adviser Dan Pfeiffer reiterated that strategy in an e-mail released by the White House late last week.
The president “has a pen and he has a phone, and he will use them to take executive action and enlist every American -- business owners and workers, mayors and state legislators, young people, veterans, and folks in communities from across the country -- in the project to restore opportunity for all,” Pfeiffer said.
Obama already has used the authority of his office to carry out promises he made in last year’s speech to the nation.
This month alone, Obama announced a manufacturing hub for North Carolina, designated enterprise zones in five cities struggling with unemployment and released a list of recommendations to streamline Election Day voting.
In the speech, the president will continue to push for congressional action to raise the minimum wage, provide universal pre-kindergarten programs and enact some of the changes he’s proposed to limit National Security Agency surveillance. His main theme, according to White House briefings, will be on the economy and narrowing income inequality, which he has called the “defining challenge of our time.”
“You can expect him to be consistent with where he’s been in terms of describing his priorities,” Carney said of the speech, set for 9 p.m. Washington time Jan. 28 to a joint meeting of Congress.