Congress Listens Politely To Obama's Speech

There was no booing or hissing during President Obama's State of the Union address Wednesday night. Unlike last year's address to Congress, no one shouted "You lie!" Those who opposed any particular idea just sat clamped to their seats quietly. And the groups that stood in applause seemed more varied than usual.

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The people in the House chamber for the speech included NPR's Andrea Seabrook, who sampled the Congressional reaction.

ANDREA SEABROOK: The air is electric inside the House chamber during the State of the Union address. Looking down from the gallery, you can see the Senators and Representatives fanned out around the podium, every one of them carefully calculating a reaction to the president's words.

Representative JOSEPH CROWLEY (New York, Democrat): Depending on who we are, we may do a half-clap, half-stand, stand-no-clap, sit-no-clap, sit-clap.

SEABROOK: Congressman Joseph Crowley, a Democrat from New York, poking fun at the theater of it all. This year, a few things stood out. There was no booing or hissing. Those who opposed any particular idea just sat clamped to their seats, quietly. And the groups that stood in applause seemed more varied than usual, as if Obama's speech were dicing up Congressional caucuses along finer lines than just Republican and Democrat. And what gave heart to Crowley?

Rep. CROWLEY: The real important issues, when he talked about, you know, moving forward with America, we - it was universal. It was Democrats, Republicans standing, I think. And that's the important part, to begin that dialogue.

SEABROOK: Michigan Democrat John Dingell has seen a few of these speeches.

Representative JOHN DINGELL (Democrat, Michigan): The first one I went to, I was six, and my dad took me on the floor to hear President Roosevelt.

SEABROOK: Dingell is the dean of the House, the current longest-serving member. He and his father both championed health care reform, and Dingle was glad to hear President Obama say that fight is not over.

Moderates in both parties heard things they liked in the speech, too. Republican Mark Kirk of Illinois took notes, pros and cons, on a big legal pad. The pros? A spending freeze, the reform of pork barrel politics, and especially the help for small businesses.

Representative MARK KIRK (Republican, Illinois): He is going to get very strong Republican support on that.

SEABROOK: So there are things that you think could be bipartisan going forward?

Rep. KIRK: Oh, yeah. When you talk about cutting capital gains, a small business tax credit and a college tax credit, you're going to get strong bipartisan support. I'm worried, though, he's going to increase taxes on banks, which means that we may have another credit crunch there.

SEABROOK: That and a few other bits made the president's call for bipartisanship sound hollow to House Republican Whip Eric Cantor.

Representative ERIC CANTOR (Republican, Virginia; House Republican Whip): If you listen to what the president said on energy, he said, sure. I am for offshore drilling. I am for new, clean, nuclear power plants. That's a great policy. I support that. But then in the next sentence he said, but I'm also for cap-and-trade.

SEABROOK: Which, says Cantor, is totally unacceptable. So it's hard to tell if President Obama's call for bipartisanship will make any difference. Maryland Democrat Chris Van Hollen said the president spoke clearly to Republicans.

Representative CHRIS VAN HOLLEN (Democrat, Maryland): You guys have a better idea for getting ourselves out of this mess, let me hear it. But if you're going to come to me with the same ideas that got us into this fix in the first place, I don't think it's going to fly.

SEABROOK: And that's a direct challenge, said Van Hollen, to the Republicans. If you want to be responsible public servants, he said, then come up with some responsible ideas to govern.

Of course, it's an election year for all of the House and a third of the Senate, so both sides will spend a lot of time between now and November pointing out their differences.

For Americans yearning for some bipartisanship in Washington, perhaps they can hang their hopes on that thin olive branch extended last night. No one booed.

Andrea Seabrook, NPR News, the Capitol.

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INSKEEP: Now if you want to hear about the prospects for the health care overhaul, NPR's White House Correspondent Scott Horsley and our health policy correspondent Julie Rovner will take up the issue together in a live Web chat. It comes today at 1:00 Eastern Time. You can find it at npr.org.

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