DAVID GREENE, host:
I'm David Welna at the Capitol.
President Obama will be addressing a house deeply divided when he goes before the joint session of Congress tonight. Many of his fellow Democrats are hoping to hear a speech filled with bold proposals to rally a dispirited nation. California Senator Barbara Boxer says the president's feisty words in Detroit on Monday were a good start.
Senator BARBARA BOXER (Democrat, California): I hope the president keeps his fighting spirit that he displayed on Labor Day, where it was really clear that he is fighting for the middle class and jobs. And if he continues with that spirit and lays out a plan on how to get there, I think it'll be very, very riveting.
WELNA: Boxer, who chairs the Public Works Committee, wants the president to push for putting unemployed people to work by rebuilding the nation's roads, bridges, and schools. Other Democrats, including Iowa Senator Tom Harkin, say now is no time for the federal government to cut back on spending.
Senator TOM HARKIN (Democrat, Iowa): I'm disturbed by our failure to confront the current economic crisis with the boldness and vision that earlier generations of Americans summoned in times of national challenge. Smart countries, Mr. President, in times of economic times do not just turn a chainsaw on themselves.
WELNA: Yet the most significant proposal Democrats may get from the president tonight is for Congress to extend the one-year payroll tax break it approved last December.
Dick Durbin, the Senate's number two Democrat, says it's meant an extra $1,000 for the average working family.
Senator DICK DURBIN (Democrat, Illinois): It accounts for two percent of income. That to me is sensible. Put spending power in the hands of working families, lower and middle-income families. These are the people who are struggling, paycheck to paycheck. We've done that, we should continue to do that.
WELNA: Republicans disagree. The Senate's number three Republican, Lamar Alexander, says while he's for most tax cuts, he's not for this one.
Senator LAMAR ALEXANDER (Republican, Tennessee): I am not for short-term provisions that are gestures but don't provide certainty over the long term and don't help create jobs.
WELNA: But just nine months ago, Alexander was among many Republicans who praised the payroll tax cut. He told NPR's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED back then that it would be good for businesses in his home state of Tennessee.
Sen. ALEXANDER: Employees who work there will get a one-third reduction in their payroll tax payments every two weeks. And maybe they'll spend some more money creating more jobs.
WELNA: That congressional Republicans like Alexander should no longer be willing to let workers get that tax break indicates the challenge Obama faces here tonight.
Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell says the president is welcome.
Senator MITCH McCONNELL (Republican, Kentucky): And we certainly intend to listen politely to the recommendations the president has. But I think I can pretty confidently say everybody in the Republican conference in the Senate thinks that we need to quit doing what we've been doing. Quit borrowing, quit spending, quit threatening to raise taxes, and quit having a big wet blanket on top of the private sector economy by this explosion of regulations.
WELNA: Republicans have their own plan to foster job creation, and it revolves largely around a legislative offensive this fall in the GOP-controlled House to knock down new and proposed labor and environmental regulations.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor is leading that effort, and while he did clash over the summer with the president during the debt ceiling crisis, yesterday he sought to strike a conciliatory note when asked about the president's jobs speech.
Representative ERIC CANTOR (Republican, Virginia): We really do need to focus on areas of common agreement, or those areas where we can potentially find some common agreement.
WELNA: One such area, Republicans say, is the need to pass trade agreements with South Korea, Panama and Colombia.
Ohio Republican Senator Rob Portman called yesterday for the White House to submit those long-pending trade deals to Congress.
Senator ROB PORTMAN (Republican, Ohio): The president's own metrics, when applied to these three agreements, means 250,000 new jobs. So it seems to me this is one where Republicans and Democrats alike ought to be telling the president, if you're really interested in helping the American worker, send us these agreements.
WELNA: Still, many congressional Democrats remain wary of passing more trade deals, just as they're skeptical of the GOP's latest push for deregulation. One thing everyone agrees on in Congress is that millions more jobs are urgently needed. Just how to make that happen is what divides them, no matter what the president says tonight.
David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.
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