President Barack Obama ended his State of the Union address Tuesday with a call for “a better politics.” Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA) followed with the formal Republican response and looked for “a little cooperation from the president” with the new Republican Congress.
But with their actual words, the stark differences between the executive and legislative branches remain crystal clear.
With memories of Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s water-grab and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal’s famously flat response still fresh, Ernst was crisp and clean, with nothing at all for the Internet cling to. She began with her personal story, a farm girl who worked at Hardee’s and became an Army officer and U.S. senator.
“We heard the message you sent in November — loud and clear,” she said to start. “Now we’re getting to work to change the direction Washington has been taking our country.”
But when it came to actual policies, Ernst rebuffed Obama on specific points — and kept quixotic conservative quests like Obamacare repeal alive and well.
Obama dismissed the Keystone XL pipeline in his speech. “Let’s set our sights higher than a single oil pipeline,” he said.
Ernst pushed the issue in her response.
“President Obama has been delaying this bipartisan infrastructure project for years, even though many members of his party, unions, and a strong majority of Americans support it,” she said. “The President’s own State Department has said Keystone’s construction could support thousands of jobs and pump billions into our economy, and do it with minimal environmental impact.
“We worked with Democrats to pass this bill through the House. We’re doing the same now in the Senate,” she continued. “President Obama will soon have a decision to make: will he sign the bill, or block good American jobs?”
Obama warned Congress that he would veto an Iran sanctions bill. Ernst again was confrontational. “We’ll work to confront Iran’s nuclear ambitions,” she said.
The White House earlier in the day threatened to veto a House bill that would ban abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy. Ernst implicitly shot back.
“We’ll defend life, because protecting our most vulnerable is an important measure of any society,” she said.
And Ernst paid homage to the Republican pledge to repeal Obamacare — even as Obama said in his own speech that he would gladly wield his veto pen if the new Congress tried to undo his administration’s legislative achievements.
“We’ll also keep fighting to repeal and replace a health care law that’s hurt so many hardworking families,” she said. Ernst also took a shot at Obama’s new tax plan and threw out a catch-all: “We’ll work to correct executive overreach.”
Obama mentioned immigration reform — Ernst didn’t.
There was some common ground evident in Ernst and Obama’s remarks: Cybersecurity, new trade deals, closing tax loopholes.
But the obvious takeaway, after the first two weeks of the new normal in Washington, with one side pushing non-starter legislation and the other side threatening to veto it, is that Congress and Obama will have to work hard to find much room for compromise in the next two years.
Ernst hinted at that reality as she closed her speech.
“The new Republican Congress you elected is working to make Washington understand that too,” she said. “And with a little cooperation from the President, we can get Washington working again.”