Weiner, King Discuss Sitting Together For SOTU

Lawmakers broke tradition Tuesday night and some Republicans and Democrats sat next to each other during the State of the Union speech. Steve Inskeep talks to two of the lawmakers: Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-NY) and Rep. Peter King (R-NY).

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

Let's talk next with two of the lawmakers who broke with a partisan tradition to sit next to each other at the State of the Union speech last night. Democrat Anthony Weiner represents part of New York City.

Welcome to the program, sir.

Representative ANTHONY WEINER (Democrat, New York): Thank you.

INSKEEP: And Republican Peter King represents New York City suburbs on Long Island.

Welcome to you.

Representative PETER KING (Republican, New York): Good morning.

INSKEEP: Key question, gentlemen, for both of you: When anybody sits together in a theater or a plane, which one of you got the armrest?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Rep. KING: Actually, in the Congress there are no armrests, per se. Both seats have them, I guess you'd say. So, no. We were fine. Anthony and I were crammed in with everybody else. It seemed like more people were on the House floor last night than I've seen before. Maybe I'm not used to sitting in the cheap seats with Anthony.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Rep. KING: But it did seem, I don't know, tighter and more congested. But overall, it was a very good evening.

INSKEEP: Mr. Weiner, how was the date?

Rep. WEINER: It was fun. There seems to be a lot more room on the Democratic side this year. I haven't quite figured out why. But it was good. Not only did Congressman King let me use the armrest, but he didn't throw nearly as many elbows as he usually does.

(Soundbite of laughter)

INSKEEP: Well, if I can just mention - there's a photo which people can see at npr.org of the two of you. And I'm not sure which line of the president's speech it is, but Congressman Weiner, you're standing and applauding. And, Congressman King, you look utterly dismayed.

(Soundbite of laughter)

INSKEEP: You seem to have had different reactions to this speech.

Rep. KING: Yeah, I mean, it was - I don't know if I was dismayed. I mean, you know, there are differences. There's - that's why I think this whole idea of the civility and everyone sitting together - I mean, to an extent, it's good to show that we can work together. But the fact is, there are real differences. You know, there are philosophical differences. There's political differences. And so, obviously, there's going to be lines that I would applaud. And more lines that Anthony would applaud.

To me, you know, it's not any type of symbol that you're not being respectful to the other side. But, obviously, if the president says something I don't agree with, I'm not going to applaud. I would never do anything to offend him.

INSKEEP: Sure.

Rep. KING: But anyway, there was - all in all, I thought it was a very friendly evening.

INSKEEP: Well, let me ask you both, very briefly: The president talked of investments in the future, talked of this as a Sputnik moment for the United States. Is there any investment that both of you would see as an investment, as opposed to a waste of money?

Rep. WEINER: Well, look, I think it is essential, just the way if you were building a business, you want to make consensus, you have to do it for a country, as well. And I think the president made that case. I bet there have many things over the course of time.

I know when we were trying to expand the East Side access to Manhattan, we both - I believe we both supported expanding the ability for the Long Island Rail Road to be able to get into New York City better, to get the cars off the road, both in my district and in Peter's. There are things like that that transcend politics.

But, you know, look, these are - as Peter said, there are a lot of issues of which there are big divides in the country. So there's no reason to believe that there wouldn't be those divides in the Congress, as well.

INSKEEP: Congressman King.

Rep. KING: Yeah. Actually, I strongly supported the East Side access project and other infrastructure projects. The question is, at a time right now, when we're trying to get control of spending, where we're trying to stabilize spending, and as the president said, calling for a five-year freeze, we have to decide what we can spend, where we can spend it. And projects we may otherwise want to support, we just can't right now.

So I thought that the president's speech was short on specifics. Now, I realize that a State of the Union speech is thematic. But I think in view of the severe fiscal crisis - not crisis, but certainly situation we do face, I wish the president had been a bit more specific. But again, State of the Union speeches are generally not that specific.

INSKEEP: Congressman King, let me stay with you for a moment. Many people will know that you're now chairman of a committee on Homeland Security and that you intend, we're told, to hold hearings into concern about Muslim radicals in the United States. What did you think when the president said in his speech last night, quote, American Muslims are part of our American family?

Rep. KING: Well, they are. I mean, the overwhelming majority - more than the overwhelming majority of Muslims are outstanding Americans. What I'm talking about is an effort by al-Qaida to actually go into the Muslim community and recruit. They've done that on a number of occasions. And that's what I think should be examined.

But, no. Muslims, obviously, are a growing part of our population. They make outstanding citizens, outstanding Americans. So I, you know, fully support that statement by the president.

INSKEEP: Although you've said you feel that the large number, even a majority -a vast majority of mosques in the United States are run by...

Rep. KING: Yeah, I do believe there are a number of mosques that are radicalized. I don't believe that imams and mosques necessarily represent the Muslim people. This is an issue I've actually discussed with a number of Muslims who draw the distinction between the position of an imam in the Muslim community, as opposed to, say, to a priest, minister or rabbi in the Catholic, Protestant and the Jewish communities.

INSKEEP: Congressman Weiner, you've got about 45 seconds. I'll give you the last word here.

Rep. WEINER: Well, I think that, you know, that Peter is going to have the challenge to show that these hearings are going to be fair. And whenever you start to identify one religious part of our country for investigation, it makes people nervous. But I do want to point out that that was one of the lines that both Peter and I stood up and clapped for: the important contributions of Muslim Americans.

INSKEEP: So you think you're not as far apart as people might assume on that issue?

Rep. WEINER: No. No. No. We're pretty far apart. Let's not get carried away. But we certainly did find things last night that we could agree upon. I would not have your listeners count on us doing this every year, but it was certainly worth doing for one year.

INSKEEP: Okay. Congressman Anthony Weiner, thanks very much for your time.

Rep. WEINER: Thank you.

INSKEEP: He's a Democrat from New York City. And Congressman Peter King, Republican, thank you as well.

Rep. KING: Thank you. Appreciate it.

INSKEEP: He represents Long Island.

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