Their tumultuous relationship nearing an end, President Obama and Congress scheduled one last date for Tuesday night, when Obama delivered his final State of the Union address. But make no mistake, the breakup was already complete.
Obama’s need to work with Congress effectively ended late last year, after lawmakers passed a two-year budget accord and approved a spending package to keep the government open for the bulk of the coming election year. And the political reality was evident in Obama’s speech, which centered on a high-minded appeal for a more inclusive and responsive brand of politics but included no specific proposals in that area.
Instead, he called on Congress to take action only on a handful of issues whose chances of passage this year range from slim to none.
“The speech tonally was very different than previous years,” said Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), chairman of the Senate Republican Conference. “It’s almost like, ‘Okay, I’ve done what I can, and I’m going to continue to do what I can this next year by executive action.’ But I think he’s been on the glide path out of here, and I think the speech tonight reflected that.”
Republican leaders, meanwhile, effectively forfeited any leverage they had to force Obama to accept additional policy concessions by agreeing to the fiscal deals last year. So, after a year that saw the passage of several major policy bills on education, transportation and taxation, both parties have now pivoted firmly toward politics.
The pivot was on display in the runup to Tuesday’s address, with Republicans and Democrats mostly talking past each other about their expectations for the speech and for the year ahead.
Asked last week what he would advise the president to say Tuesday, the typically earnest House speaker, Paul D. Ryan, opted for sarcasm, saying Obama ought to “take it all back.”
“Health care [reform] was wrong; we shouldn’t have done Dodd-Frank; I want to actually lower tax rates, clear out crony capitalism, and restore the Constitution to its rightful place in American life,” Ryan said. “That’s what I would encourage him to say. Something tells me he might not say that.”
Ryan has made clear his intention to use the House as a platform to develop a Republican campaign agenda. Meanwhile, the White House had given plenty of indications the GOP-controlled Congress wouldn’t be much of a player in its list final-year priorities — none stronger than Obama’s decision shortly after the New Year to unveil new executive actions aimed at expanding background checks for gun buyers, a proposal that GOP congressional leaders have shown no interest in taking up.
Obama’s address Tuesday mentioned several issues he planned to “push for” or “work on.” But he directly asked Congress to act on only three issues: revisiting the presidential authority to use military force against the Islamic State, approving the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, and lifting the Cuban trade embargo.
Each carries deep political complications and thus little chance of advancing through Congress in a presidential election year.
“If I had to handicap, I’m not sure any of them get done this next year,” Thune said after the speech.
Those dismal prospects have driven Obama’s moves to take executive action wherever possible — actions that have inflamed congressional Republicans and created a vicious cycle that has made the prospect of bipartisan lawmaking ever more unlikely.
“He had his run, and he’s made it clear that he’s going to use every regulatory power he has, and more, to further his agenda, and I think Congress should be prepared to say — you don’t get to go beyond the law,” Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) said Monday.
However, Congress’s power to interfere with Obama’s executive actions — including not only the gun orders, but also the issuance of labor, environmental and financial rules widely loathed by conservatives — is now sharply limited.
Democrats have successfully filibustered most Republican attempts to overrule the administration’s regulatory actions, and Obama has vetoed the handful that have made it to his desk. GOP lawmakers hoped to use the appropriations process to impose policy “riders” blocking White House priorities, but during spending negotiations last year, party leaders instead used what leverage they had to win an end to the 30-year-old ban on oil exports.
That leverage is now gone. Both Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) have said they intend to spend much of their legislative time and energy in the coming year on passing appropriations bills ahead of the Sept. 30 fiscal year deadline. But that is much easier said than done, especially with conservative lawmakers eager to use the power of the purse to undermine Obama, and the Senate filibuster and Obama’s veto pen standing ready to block them.
In the most likely scenario, Congress will pass a stopgap measure to continue the current spending levels until after the election.
Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) said Republican leaders will be under pressure from their party’s right flank to pursue hard-line conservative provisions in the spending bills come September, just as the general election campaigns begin in earnest.
“I think Ryan is smart enough to know that that’s not politically viable, so what I expected to happen is, there will be a lot of talk about doing this. But come Sept. 15 or so,” Hoyer said, “they will say we’re going to have a [stopgap] until after the election so they won’t have to make any tough decisions.”
There are a handful of matters that might still see action on Capitol Hill, but the chances for action have mostly diminished since the new year.
One issue, criminal justice reform, got a passing mention from Obama on Tuesday, and several Republican lawmakers said later they saw an opportunity to work together on the issue in the coming months.
But prospects for action dimmed earlier in the day when the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), said at an Atlantic magazine event he was not inclined to compromise with Democrats on a key provision of draft legislation that would reform sentences for nonviolent criminal offenders. And a handful of conservatives, including Sessions, say it would be a mistake to take up such a sensitive issue in an election year: “I think the last thing we need to be doing is trying to push through a bill to reduce sentences even further,” Sessions said.
As for passing a new congressional war authorization targeting the Islamic State, that, too, appears unlikely after McConnell on Sunday undermined an incipient effort by Ryan: “I can’t imagine that I would be voting for an authorization to use military force that Barack Obama would sign,” he said in an ABC News interview. “I don’t want to tie the hands of the next president.”
Also likely to be off the table until after the election is ratification of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal. It remains possible that Congress might act this spring on legislation to address Puerto Rico’s fiscal crisis. But by the time the presidential primary season is in full swing in mid-February, the opportunity to act on contentious legislation may have passed.
To Capitol Hill denizens, all of that made Obama’s address Tuesday more of a last hurrah than a call to action.
“He’s checking out,” said Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.), a moderate who has been a rare GOP advocate bipartisan compromise. “The president wants to preserve his legacy, but he’s checking out.”