WASHINGTON — Congressional Republicans swiftly and sharply rejected President Barack Obama’s vow to act on his own if lawmakers won’t help him create jobs and narrow the nation’s yawning income gap, insisting he’ll accomplish little in a divided government without them.
“The authority he has doesn’t add up to much for those without opportunity in this economy,” House Speaker John Boehner said after Obama’s State of the Union address before a packed House chamber and a prime-time television audience.
“The real answer is for Obama to refocus his priorities and work with us on the things that we can achieve together to create jobs and promote greater opportunity,” he added.
Obama’s aim to move beyond a pattern of political crises and division is further complicated by the fact that 2014 is a midterm election year, with control of Congress at stake.
Hoping to gain the political initiative, Obama summoned lawmakers to create jobs, overhaul immigration laws, combat climate change and more, and said he would act unilaterally where possible if they won’t compromise.
“America does not stand still, and neither will I,” the president declared. “So whatever and wherever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families, that’s what I’m going to do.”
Vice President Joe Biden underscored that blunt message Wednesday as Obama prepared to take his pitch on the road, starting with visits to suburban Maryland to highlight his call for raising the minimum wage and to Pittsburgh to build support for improved retirement security.
“The president will take action where in fact he thinks it will spur action in the state or in Congress,” Biden said on “CBS This Morning. “We’re just not going to sit around and wait for the Congress if they choose not to act.”
For their part, House Republicans were departing for a two-day retreat on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Obama’s promise to wield his presidential power was certain to be part of the discussion — and so, too, ways to gain concessions from the White House in exchange for increasing the nation’s $17 trillion debt ceiling.
From Boehner down, there was little evidence they intended to move Obama’s way.
“Too many people are falling further and further behind because, right now, the president’s policies are making people’s lives harder,” Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers said in the Republicans’ official response.
The State of the Union speech came at the beginning of the sixth year in Obama’s presidency and was replete with all the political pageantry that Washington can muster. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg opened her arms wide to give a grinning Obama a huge hug as he walked past her on the way to the speaker’s rostrum.
The galleries ringing the floor were crowded with guests, also part of the traditional setting. The evening’s longest — and most bipartisan — applause went to one of them. Army Sgt. 1st Class Cory Remsburg, grievously injured by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan, acknowledged the cheers from his seat next to first lady Michelle Obama.
By contrast, Obama’s mention of the health care law that bears his name brought cheers from Democrats and silence from Republicans, who have spent the past three years trying to repeal a program they loathe.
He said he didn’t expect Republicans to change their minds but challenged them to offer improvements. “If you have specific plans to cut costs, cover more people and increase choice — tell America what you’d do differently. Let’s see if the numbers add up.
“But let’s not have another 40-something votes to repeal a law that’s already helping millions of Americans.”
Republicans have yet to offer a comprehensive health care alternative, and the remarks appeared to be an attempt by the president to frame the issue to his party’s advantage in the long campaign ahead for control of Congress.
Similarly, Obama’s heavy emphasis on income disparity underscored the importance pocketbook issues will have in Congress this year and in the election in November.
“Opportunity is who we are. And the defining project of our generation is to restore that promise,” he said.
Obama announced before the speech that he would soon sign an order raising the minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 an hour for federal contractors. He urged Congress to make it the law of the land — even though Republicans had already rejected the proposal as a threat to those at the bottom of the wage ladder.
Among the president’s other executive initiatives is a plan to help workers whose employers don’t offer retirement savings plans. The program would allow first-time savers to start building up savings in Treasury bonds that eventually could be converted into traditional IRAs.
The president also announced new commitments from companies to consider hiring the long-term unemployed; the creation of four more “manufacturing hubs” where universities and businesses would work together to develop and train workers; new incentives to encourage truckers to switch from dirtier fuels to natural gas or other alternatives; and a proposed tax credit to promote the adoption of cars that can run on cleaner fuels, such as hydrogen, natural gas or biofuels.
In a speech that ran slightly more than an hour, Obama said he would streamline the approval process for key transportation projects — but made no mention of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline that Republicans want built.
In one area where bipartisanship is most likely, he urged enactment of legislation to promote trade.
Much of the balance of the president’s agenda has run aground on partisanship before, and will be hard to accomplish in an election year.
“Let’s get immigration done this year,” he said, although House Republicans have already ruled out his call to create a path to citizenship for millions of adults living in the country illegally.
Even tougher is climate change, an area where the president said the scientific debate is settled, but some Republicans deny that global warming is caused by humans.
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