Lawmakers Hear President Say He's Ready To Go It Alone

Members of the House and Senate sit and listen and often applaud the presidential State of the Union, but when it's done many members crowd the microphones in Statuary Hall to oppose the chief executive's vision.

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Let's hear now how some lawmakers responded to President Obama's address. As NPR's Ailsa Chang reports, many congressional members were struck most by the president's repeated threat to use his executive authority to get some things done.

AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: President Obama promised a year of action last night, one propelled by his willingness to go it alone and take steps without waiting for Congress to go along. After watching gun control legislation collapse in the Senate last spring, a comprehensive immigration reform package languish in the House for months and a government shutdown in October, the president now seems to be saying, enough. I don't need Congress's permission for everything. And to that, Republican Senator Ted Cruz of Texas says he's not surprised.

SENATOR TED CRUZ: He continued his pattern - that I think is one of the most disturbing patterns of the Obama administration - of side-stepping Congress and acting unilaterally. There is a pattern of lawlessness in this administration.

CHANG: A lawlessness, Cruz pointed out, already exemplified by the president's decision to defer the deportation of many younger illegal immigrants brought to the U.S. by their parents and the president's refusal to defend the Defense of Marriage Act. Last night, Obama announced an executive order to raise the minimum wage to over $10 an hour for future federal contract workers. And Republican Tom Cole of Oklahoma said the problem with executive orders like that is that they're limited in scope.

REPRESENTATIVE TOM COLE: The problem is they don't outlast their presidency. So, if you want to go to write on the sand in the beach, that's great, but the tide will come in. So, if you want to do something, sit down with the other side and make real concrete legislation, and you can do things that are lasting and significant.

CHANG: But honestly, could the presidency lasting in significant legislation, raising the federal wage, something he's strongly pushing for?

COLE: I think it's likely not to happen, partly because, you know, states are able to go ahead and act on their own. And so the country is very diverse. What makes sense in a state with 9 percent unemployment maybe doesn't make sense in a state with 5.5.

CHANG: As for extending benefits for the long-term unemployed, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle seem to agree some extension is needed. House Speaker John Boehner has said for weeks he'd consider one, as long as there was a way to pay for it. But Democrat Chris Van Hollen of Maryland says it's not going to be that easy with House Republicans.

REPRESENTATIVE CHRIS VAN HOLLEN: He said let's use some of the savings from cutting agriculture subsidies - which is part of the farm bill - and let's direct those savings to pay for an extension of emergency unemployment insurance - very clear. They said we wouldn't even get to vote on that idea.

CHANG: There was also no shortage of pushback last night on laws already on the books. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington used her Republican response to the president's speech to go after the Affordable Care Act, her party's favorite campaign issue this year.

REPRESENTATIVE CATHY MCMORRIS RODGERS: We've all talked to too many people who've received cancellation notices they didn't expect, or who can no longer see the doctors they always have. No, we shouldn't go back to things - the way things were. But this law is not working.

CHANG: Still, there remains a modest hope 2014 could bring moments of bipartisan accord. House Republicans are heading into their annual retreat this week, expecting to discuss what changes in immigration law they're willing to support. Ailsa Chang, NPR News, the Capitol.

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