In Tuesday’s State of the Union Address, President Obama unveiled a host of new plans for the last two years of his presidency even as he faces for the first time a House and Senate united under Republican control. Some issues Obama raised and the reality he faces in trying to implement major changes:
“At this moment — with a growing economy, shrinking deficits, bustling industry and booming energy production — we have risen from recession freer to write our own future than any other nation on Earth. It’s now up to us to choose who we want to be over the next 15 years, and for decades to come. Will we accept an economy where only a few of us do spectacularly well? Or will we commit ourselves to an economy that generates rising incomes and chances for everyone who makes the effort?”
The economy is on the upswing. The unemployment rate fell to 5.6% in December, and the economy grew at a 5% clip during the third quarter of last year — the biggest expansion in more than a decade. Republicans note, however, that 8.7 million people remain out of work, and say that millions more are trapped in low-paying, part-time jobs.
Obama is trying to seize on the economic revival to push an array of new policies aimed at helping lower- and middle-income Americans, who have lagged behind in the recovery. They include proposals to give workers seven days a year of paid sick time and a plan to triple the child-care tax credit to $3,000.
To pay for the new programs, the White House wants to raise $320 billion over a decade though new taxes targeting wealthy individuals and large financial institutions. Those include boosting the top tax rate on capital gains to 28%, up from the current $23.8%. The rate will apply to top earners, such as couples making more than $500,000 a year.
House Speaker John Boehner called it an outdated approach that pits “one set of Americans against the other.” Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, who oversees banking policy in the House, argued that a proposed fee on big financial institutions — which the White House has said is aimed at discouraging big banks from risky and excessive borrowing — would eventually “trickle down” to consumers, making it more expensive for them to secure mortgages and car loans.
Statement: “If you share the broad vision I outlined tonight, join me in the work at hand. If you disagree with parts of it, I hope you’ll at least work with me where you do agree. And I commit to every Republican here tonight that I will not only seek out your ideas, I will seek to work with you to make this country stronger.”
Context: Obama’s call for cooperation comes as he threatens to veto eight bills from a new Congress that convened just two weeks ago.
The president has vowed to veto a homeland security spending bill passed last week by the House that would derail his recent executive order to protect about 4 million undocumented immigrants from being deported and allow them to work legally in the USA.
He also plans to veto the Keystone XL pipeline project, which would carry crude oil nearly 1,200 miles from Canada south to Nebraska. The House approved the project on Jan. 9, and the Senate is debating it this week. On Tuesday, the White House threatened to veto a separate bill that would allow the automatic approval of natural gas pipeline projects if federal agencies do not act quickly on developers’ applications for permits.
Obama also has promised to veto any bill — even a bipartisan one — that would impose new sanctions on Iran if it refuses to agree by June 30 to a permanent framework to limit its nuclear program. He has argued that the threat of more sanctions could derail negotiations with Iran.
And the president threatened vetoes of a House-passed bill to reduce the number of workers getting insurance from their employers under the Affordable Care Act, a bill to weaken regulations governing the financial sector, a bill to make it harder for federal agencies to adopt new rules, and a bill to ban abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy.
• COMMUNITY COLLEGE
“I am sending this Congress a bold new plan to lower the cost of community college — to zero. … Tennessee, a state with Republican leadership, and Chicago, a city with Democratic leadership, are showing that free community college is possible. I want to spread that idea all across America.”
The program, which Obama first rolled out this month, would be available to students who attend college at least half the time, make steady progress and maintain at least a 2.5 grade-point average. It could benefit as many as 9 million students a year.
Called America’s College Promise, the plan would cost $60 billion over a decade with the federal government footing 75% of the average cost of community college and participating states paying the rest. It requires congressional approval. Individual states also would have to sign off.
The proposal faces a steep climb in the Republican-controlled Congress, where top officials have balked at its costs. “Unless the president has a responsible plan to meet our existing commitments, he shouldn’t be making new promises the American people can’t afford,” said Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., who heads the House Education and Workforce Committee.
Even some Republicans from Tennessee were cool to the idea. Asked whether he would back Obama’s plan, Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., told CNN, “Oh, no, no, no, no, no” and said he would urge states to try their own community-college initiatives rather than support a new federal program.
“In Iraq and Syria, American leadership — including our military power — is stopping ISIL’s advance. Instead of getting dragged into another ground war in the Middle East, we are leading a broad coalition, including Arab nations, to degrade and ultimately destroy this terrorist group … and tonight, I call on this Congress to show the world that we are united in this mission by passing a resolution to authorize the use of force against ISIL.”
The president’s call for Congress to authorize military force against Islamic State militants, also known as ISIL or ISIS, comes months after several lawmakers, including those in his own party such as Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., had urged him to seek such a measure. Congress is sure to offer support, especially with troops in harm’s way. But Congress could attach restrictions to limit the time or scope of military options — or push the White House and Pentagon to do more. The White House, for example, has ruled out the use of U.S. troops on the ground. Airstrikes, however, would be more effective with special operations forces on the ground to call them in.
The U.S.-led air war, conducted with allies from Europe and the Middle East, has helped stall the momentum of Islamic State fighters who poured into Iraq in the summer, overran the northern city of Mosul and threatened Baghdad. In Syria, they have besieged the city of Kobani. Kurdish forces there, backed by American airstrikes, have retaken much of the city from militants, according to the Pentagon. But the Islamic State still controls vast swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria.
“I urge this Congress to finally pass the legislation we need to better meet the evolving threat of cyberattacks. … If we don’t act, we’ll leave our nation and our economy more vulnerable.”
The president proposed cybersecurity legislation last week to promote greater information-sharing between the government and private sector on cyberthreats.
Obama’s proposal would give companies legal protection from lawsuits for sharing information about cyberattacks with the government. It also would require businesses to comply with privacy restrictions by removing unnecessary personal information before sharing data with the Department of Homeland Security.
An information-sharing bill passed the House last session but stalled in the Senate as critics raised concerns about the danger of Americans’ personal data being shared with the government.
One of the issues that Congress will have to grapple with is which federal agency should receive information from the private sector. While Obama is calling for the civilian Department of Homeland Security to get the information, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, thinks the data should go to the National Security Agency, which is part of the Defense Department.
“Yes, passions still fly on immigration, but surely we can all see something of ourselves in the striving young student, and agree that no one benefits when a hard-working mom is taken from her child, and that it’s possible to shape a law that upholds our tradition as a nation of laws and a nation of immigrants.”
After it became clear Congress was not going to pass an immigration bill in the last session, Obama issued an executive order in November to give temporary legal status to about 4 million of the nation’s 11 million undocumented immigrants.
The new Republican-led Congress has already taken action to derail the president’s order. The House last week passed a spending bill for the Department of Homeland Security that included amendments to bar any federal money from being used to carry out the executive action.
The bill also tries to kill a 2012 program by Obama that has protected about 600,000 young immigrants who were brought to the USA illegally as children from being deported. That program, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), allows the young immigrants to work or attend school in the USA legally for two-year periods.
The House action puts the chamber on a collision course with Senate Democrats, who are likely to block the bill. Even if the Senate passes the legislation, Obama has vowed to veto it. If a compromise cannot be reached by the end of February, it could lead to a partial shutdown of the Department of Homeland Security.
• GUANTANAMO BAY
Statement: “As Americans, we have a profound commitment to justice – so it makes no sense to spend three million dollars per prisoner to keep open a prison that the world condemns and terrorists use to recruit. Since I’ve been President, we’ve worked responsibly to cut the population of GTMO in half. Now it’s time to finish the job. And I will not relent in my determination to shut it down. It’s not who we are.”
Context: There are 122 detainees at Guantanamo, which Obama refers to by its military abbreviation. The prison camps opened in 2002 after scores of detainees were scooped up on battlefields in Afghanistan and beyond. At first, they were housed in open-air, chain-link fence cages. Now, the detainees are held in modern, American-style penitentiaries. At its peak, the prison population neared 700. It costs about $3 million annually for each inmate housed there.
Obama vowed, in one of his first statements as president in 2009, to shut down the prison. That has proven far more difficult than initially thought. Republican members of Congress have fought to keep it open. Earlier this month, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., new chairman of the armed services committee and Obama’s opponent in 2008, proposed a measure that would prevent transfers of detainees to war-torn Yemen.
Then there is the matter of the high-value detainees, such as Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the self-proclaimed mastermind of the 9/11 attacks. There is no date in sight for his military trial.
“In Cuba, we are ending a policy that was long past its expiration date. When what you’re doing doesn’t work for fifty years, it’s time to try something new. Our shift in Cuba policy has the potential to end a legacy of mistrust in our hemisphere; removes a phony excuse for restrictions in Cuba; stands up for democratic values; and extends the hand of friendship to the Cuban people. And this year, Congress should begin the work of ending the embargo.”
President Obama announced in December that the United States would re-establish diplomatic relations with Cuba after more than 50 years. As a result, the U.S. Treasury and Commerce departments unveiled a new set of rules that will make it easier for Americans to travel to Cuba and sell products directly to small businesses there.
But there are limits to what the president can do alone. Only Congress can lift the trade embargo and approve unlimited travel to Cuba. And Congress must approve the use of federal funds to open a U.S. Embassy in Cuba. The Senate also would have to confirm whomever Obama nominates to be the U.S. ambassador to Cuba.
Members of Congress are deeply divided on the president’s plan, with Cuban-American lawmakers leading the opposition against it. However, some conservatives, including Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., say it’s time to normalize relations.
SOURCE: Erin Kelly, Fredreka Schouten and Tom Vanden Brook