Democrats Eager To Advance White House Agenda

House Majority Whip James Clyburn, a Congressman from South Carolina, discusses President Obama's plan for the nation, as presented last night during an address to lawmakers on Capitol Hill. Clyburn explains how fellow Democrats in Congress will work to advance the President's agenda.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Now, another perspective on the president's speech from House Majority Whip James Clyburn. He is the number three Democrat in the house. He's a nine-term congressman representing South Carolina's 6th district. He was in the House chamber last night to witness President Obama's speech, and he's here with me in our Washington, D.C., studios now. Congressman, thank you so much for joining us.

Representative JAMES CLYBURN (Democrat, Columbia, South Carolina; House Majority Whip): Thank you so much for having me.

MARTIN: First question to you, same as I asked Michael Steele, how did the president do? First big state occasion after his inauguration, how did he do?

Rep. CLYBURN: I thought it was a great speech. It was very sobering. He was very assured and assuring. I thought that most of people would - will be looking to see his demeanor as much as to hear what he had to say. And I think that they all came away from that speech very pleased with both the substance as well as his style.

MARTIN: Here's a short - another short clip, and I want to mention, again, that we'll have the full text and audio on our Web site, npr.org/tellmemore. Here's another short clip. Here it is.

(Soundbite of presidential address, February 24, 2009)

President BARACK OBAMA: My budget does not attempt to solve every problem or address every issue. It reflects the stark reality of what we've inherited: a trillion dollar deficit, a financial crisis and a costly recession. Given these realities, everyone in this chamber - Democrats and Republicans - will have to sacrifice some worthy priorities for which there are no dollars, and that includes me.

MARTIN: Congressman Clyburn, as, of course, you know, as one of the leaders of the Democrats in the House, there are some Democrats who were worried that the president's making too much effort to appease the Republicans, to address their concern, to the exclusion of worthy priorities that Democrats support, and they say, you know what? Elections have consequences. What do you say to that?

Rep. CLYBURN: Well, I agree that elections have consequences, but the fact remains that the American people told us during elections last year that they were tired of the acrimony here in Washington. They want to see us working together. And I think the president is right to do everything he possibly can to reach out to the Republicans to try and be as bipartisan as he possibly can be. Now, that doesn't mean he will succeed. He tried very hard and did not succeed with his recovery package. Not a single Republican in a House voted for it, and not only did they not vote for it, but an hour before his meeting with them, John Boehner put out an instruction to all of his members to oppose this thing, lock, stock and barrel. So, that, I think, was instructive for the president, though I think he's right to continue to try. You may not always succeed, but the American people will see and, in fact, I think all the surveys indicate, they are giving him high marks for trying to reach out, and they're given the Republican very low marks for not responding in kind. And so, I don't think he should stop doing it because they are refusing to respond. Just keep on doing it the way you're doing it, and you'll keep an 80 percent acceptance or 90 percent acceptance, whichever survey you want to believe.

MARTIN: We only have another minute before we need to take a short break, and then, of course, you're going to stay with us for a couple of more minutes. But I - you heard the Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele, who was on the program just a few minutes before you. He suggested that the president's goal of both taking on some of these ambitious domestic-policy priorities and cutting the deficit is unrealistic. What do you say to that?

Rep. CLYBURN: This whole thing is designed to grow the economy, and why would anybody not look at the fact that we're talking about 18, 24 months out? If these things succeed, what you would do is put people back to work; people start paying taxes; the markets will start responding; people start lending money again; the economy will start growing. And so, if all that succeeds, then you will get to where you want to be. Steele seems to feel that nothing is going to happen.

MARTIN: We're speaking with Congressman James Clyburn of South Carolina, the House Majority Whip, about president's Obama address to the joint session of Congress last night. We need to take a short break, but when we come back, we will have more with Congressman Clyburn coming up on Tell Me More from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Please stay with us.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Coming up, a debate about whether the media should be allowed to photograph the caskets of fallen service members as they return to our shores: The Obama administration is reviewing the issue. We talk with two Gold Star mothers about the policy in just a few minutes; that's next. But first, we want to continue our conversation about President Obama's speech last night with House Majority Whip James Clyburn. He represents South Carolina's 6th district. He's here with me in the studio. Thank you for staying with us.

Rep. CLYBURN: Thank you.

MARTIN: And I want to play a short clip of the Republican response, which was delivered by Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal. Now, here's a short clip.

(Soundbite of Republican Party presidential-address response, February 24, 2009)

Governor BOBBY JINDAL (Republican, Louisiana): Republicans want to work with President Obama. We appreciate his message of help. But sometimes, it seems like we look for hope in different places. Democratic leaders in Washington, they place their hope in the federal government. We place our hope in you, the American people.

MARTIN: As I mentioned, we will have the full text on our Web site and the audio of both speeches. Does that statement, though - it seems to indicate a really sharp ideological difference with the Democrats right now. I wonder if you feel all the Republicans in the House share this view, that in the essence government is the problem, not the solution, but does this give you any confidence that, in fact, Republicans are willing to work across the aisle?

Gov. JINDAL: Well, I don't think the Republicans really get it. The fact of the matter is, who is the government? We the American people; this is government of, for and by the people. And I think that this whole notion of separating out the American people from each other is a failing proposition, and if they continue to do that, they will continue to have the kind of success that they've been having recently at the polls. This government that we have will be as good as the American people. And I really believe that that's why the American people responded the way they did last time, is because the people that they put in - their faith in disappointed them. They were elected to run the country for 12 years; they failed. So, they've now put a new set of people there. So, I think that those of us who try to make the government something separate and apart from the people fail to recognize that the people are, in fact, the government and that's why they responded the way they did.

MARTIN: But your state's own governor, Mark Stanford, has said that he may actually turn down some of the money offered in the stimulus plan. He says that this money for increasing unemployment compensation benefits might actually cause them to raise taxes in the future. What did you make of that? I mean, what suggests he feels that strongly about it?

Gov. JINDAL: I think he feel strongly about his political aspirations. I think he knows better than that. If he looked at what we're doing with these unemployment insurance monies, we are trying to make sure the states don't have to go in debt, because, by law, they would have to go in debt to pay out these claims. If you infuse the money as we are doing, they will not go in debt. Now, two years down the road, he's talking about, well, then we'll have to borrow money when the government is no longer in it. What we're doing with the other part of this package is putting people back to work so you don't have to pay those claims. So, that is a false proposition, and I don't know why Governor Stanford would make it.

The fact of the matter is at least 47 other governors see it to the contrary. I don't know why he becomes the brilliant one in all of this. Mark Stanford will get an opportunity very soon to show South Carolinians and the American people where he stands, because he has $126 million that he can use to fix up the schools, one of which was talked about in the president's address last night, JV Martin School in Dillon County. Under the formula that we put together, the JV Martin School will only get about a million - or the school district will get about $1.5 million, but the governor will have $126 million at his disposal, and I would like to see what he does with that when the school is crying out for national attention.

MARTIN: And finally, speaking of national attention for your state and for the school, one of the - a young student from South Carolina was one of the president's guests last night, seated with the first lady. She'd actually written President Obama about some of the conditions at her school. I wonder what your feelings were. It must have been a wonderful opportunity for this young lady to be part of this. On the other hand, do you ever worry that that if the president isn't and you as a Congress aren't able to deliver on these promises, that this young lady will be let down and all the other students she represented?

Rep. CLYBURN: Well, I think the American people who listened to that speech last night, and especially the part dealing with her, will understand exactly why members of Congress work as hard as we did to put in the so-called Clyburn amendment that was to work around these governors, because we did not want governors with their political philosophies to deny that young eighth-grader the future that she deserves. And the president talked about it last night, for teachers to have to stop teaching six times a day while the trains roll by because they can't - students can't hear them. Can you imagine a freight train coming by, 120 car boxes? How long will you have to stop teaching? So, this is the kind of stuff that we are trying to work around, and I think that the American people now understand.

MARTIN: James Clyburn, House Majority Whip, nine-term Democrat, representing South Carolina's 6th district, he was kind enough to join us from our Washington, D.C., studios. Congressman, thanks so much for speaking with us. I hope you'll come back and see us.

Rep. CLYBURN: I look forward to it.

MARTIN: And as I said, if you missed last night's primetime address, we've got you covered. You can read all of his remarks and the Republican response and listen to the full speech on our Web site, npr.org/tellmemore.

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