Posted on 27 Jan 2010
When President Obama appears before Congress and the nation on tonight to deliver his State of the Union speech, his goals will be to reset his agenda, assure his demoralized party that he has not given up on key priorities and try to convince a skeptical public that he can still change Washington.
The White House provided new details late Tuesday about a proposed three-year spending freeze aimed at controlling the deficit while protecting key programs that Democrats in Congress view as sacrosanct, including education. Obama will announce what administration officials described as the largest single-year request for federal funding for elementary and secondary schools, making education one of the few areas to grow in an otherwise austere budget.
The president will call for a 6.2 percent increase in education spending over last year, including up to $4 billion as part of an effort to revamp the George W. Bush-era programs that expanded testing to measure student progress, aides to the president said Tuesday. Senior aides said Obama will link the increase in education funding to his calls for school reform. They said his proposals fit into a broader effort by the White House to focus scarce resources on the nation's long-term economic health.
After the speech, Obama plans to take his newly energized populist message on the road in the coming days, pledging to voters in Florida and New Hampshire -- both 2010 battleground states -- that he will fight for them.
Democrats and Obama have yet to agree on how to tackle the year ahead, and a big part of the president's challenge Wednesday will be to begin to clear away the doubt, despair and division that have settled over his party after losing a Senate seat in Massachusetts last week.
Some Democrats are determined to salvage the major bills that consumed 2009, including health-care reform, an overhaul of financial regulations and clean-energy incentives aimed at reducing climate change. But others are ready to shelve anything big and controversial in exchange for smaller, more popular initiatives.
Although Senate Democratic leaders released a blueprint for a new jobs bill on Tuesday, lawmakers bickered over what to include in the package. The Senate's rejection Tuesday of a bipartisan deficit commission also highlighted deep divisions within the party over how aggressively to tackle a federal budget crisis that will inevitably require tax increases and spending cuts.
Even Obama's idea to impose a three-year freeze on federal spending for most domestic programs -- a relatively modest proposal to save $250 billion over 10 years -- received a lukewarm response from some top Democrats.
"We'll have to look and see what the president's talking about cutting," Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.) told reporters.
The overriding theme of the State of the Union address, scheduled for 9 p.m. Eastern time, is the economy, aides said. White House officials said the president will describe detailed initiatives for middle-class families.
With voters expressing disgust with gridlock and division, Obama will revive his campaign pledge to change the way Washington works. How he will make that topic fresh after a year in office that was marked at times by acrid partisanship remained unclear. White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Obama will argue that Washington "has to be pushed," whether on health-care reform or cutting the federal budget.
Despite the uncertain fate of health-care legislation -- Obama's top domestic priority -- the president is not expected to call for a precise way forward, although he will reiterate his commitment to the cause. "There's clearly a caricature of a health reform bill that is viewed differently by the public than when you break out its component parts," Gibbs said.
Meanwhile, Republican lawmakers must decide whether to take a greater role in advancing their priorities, which could create more opportunities for consensus legislation.
House Republicans are in preliminary talks to craft a broad agenda, similar to their 1994 Contract With America. And Senate Republicans are seeking to unite around smaller legislative proposals on key issues, to serve as contrasts to the massive bills Democrats advanced last year on health-care reform and energy.
"We've now conclusively concluded the Senate doesn't do 'comprehensive' very well," said Sen. Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), the No. 3 GOP leader. "Smaller steps in the right direction often add up to a big result." He is urging an energy policy based on four ideas endorsed by all the Republican senators: building 100 new nuclear power plants; a dramatic increase in the number of electric cars; increased offshore oil and gas drilling; and a doubling of federal investments in research and development of alternative energy.
Republicans have a similar six-point plan on health care that includes tort reform and allowing small businesses to pool resources to buy insurance plans. "Our approach is to set a goal and take steps toward achieving that goal," Alexander said.
Unwilling to let go of their health-care package, Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) met Tuesday night to discuss possible remedies, including pushing the Senate bill through the House along with a companion bill of fixes, or coming up with a new, smaller package. Later, Reid told reporters that Democrats will take time to evaluate their options. "There is no rush," he said.
Senate Democratic leaders also are discussing an initial version of an $80 billion-plus job-creation bill built around tax breaks designed to spur businesses to hire more employees. Although the legislation's cost could rise, Senate aides said lawmakers have no appetite for a package as large as the $154 billion plan the House passed in December on a party-line vote.
The House legislation included money to extend unemployment benefits and COBRA health insurance coverage, items that are not in the draft Senate bill but probably will move in the chamber as a separate measure. Nearly all of the Senate bill's cost would be offset using unspent bailout money from the Troubled Assets Relief Program.
Along with tax credits, the Senate measure is expected to include other incentives aimed at small businesses, along with billions of dollars for new infrastructure projects and clean-energy programs, possibly including a plan that would give people money to buy energy-efficient appliances and weatherize their homes. The measure will include aid to state governments to help prevent layoffs of vital public employees.