On the morning after President Obama’s State of the Union address, a joint Atlantic/National Journal panel moderated by NJ Editorial Director Ronald Brownstein hosted several legislators to respond to the speech. Participating were Republican Sens. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Democratic Sens. Dick Durbin of Illinois and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota; also taking part was House Republican Conference Chairman Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas. Edited excerpts follow.
NJ What did you hear last night that offers you the most optimism about being able to work with the president?
ALEXANDER Education, some in energy, some in trade, some in tax reform. The conflict, I think, that was most obvious in his speech was the lack of urgency about the [federal] debt. I think most Americans believe the house is on fire when you start borrowing 42 cents out of every dollar you spend. A divided government is the perfect opportunity to deal with the difficult problem you’ve got restraining the growth in entitlement spending, but it just won’t happen unless the president jumps in the middle of it.
NJ There’s an opportunity coming up in the next few weeks to bring this issue to the forefront with the bill to raise the debt ceiling.
ALEXANDER We see that as an opportunity to do something serious about reducing spending and reducing the debt, and our responsibility is to do that.
NJ Obama argued that tax subsidies should be removed from oil and gas and moved toward alternative energy, and he talked about a clean-energy standard, which would include nuclear and natural gas and pretty much everything except coal.
ALEXANDER I’m for reducing more long-term subsidies, but I’d start with windmills. I mean, the taxpayers are on the hook for $30 billion over the next 10 years to subsidize big banks and rich developers for building windmills that produce a puny amount of unreliable power. [As for a clean-energy standard], that’s a step in the right direction, but still the president is headed toward high-cost renewable energy. What we need for jobs is low-cost clean energy, not high-cost clean energy.
NJ Did he go far enough on trade?
ALEXANDER No, but I’m always glad to see him moving in the right direction. He’s beginning to move further on trade. In my point of view, he’s making some steps in directions I like and Republicans like. He’s doing it on trade. He’s doing it on nuclear power. His secretary of Education is terrific and moving in the right direction.
NJ As you listened to the speech, what do you think offered the best opportunity for Republicans and Democrats in the Senate to come together?
KLOBUCHAR Education: Clearly, there has to be some bipartisan agreement in that area. I think there’s potential on the debt to reach agreement. And energy, actually.
I think the attitude in the room, the atmosphere, lends itself to some potential long-term agreements. And I’m not just talking about the seating arrangement, which was a lot of fun, just like a prom date, but also the fact that people were much more somber; it was less like a partisan pep fest than it was people were actually listening to the president. I thought that was helpful for setting the stage for some serious work.
NJ Does that speech help you as you approach your own reelection in 2012?
KLOBUCHAR Back in June, a group of us had lunch with the president, and I pushed very hard on this innovation agenda. [Such an agenda can unite] independents, Democrats, moderate Republicans, because they know we’re starting to fall behind competitively. I thought he struck the right tone of saying there is a way forward but we have to admit we’ve got a problem.
NJ The president said he wants a domestic discretionary spending freeze for five years. What do you want to do and on what schedule?
HENSARLING I want to do it yesterday, and I’m not sure there’s enough you can do. Frankly, it is the seminal issue of our time. We are a nation in debt, with a spending trajectory that will bankrupt future generations. So [to say] it’s too little, too late doesn’t really do it justice. At a bare minimum, let’s at least roll back spending to pre-bailout, pre-stimulus levels. That at least would save us $100 billion over the next 12 months.
NJ You talked about the need for an adult conversation on entitlements. Do you expect the idea of converting Medicare into a voucher to be a part of the Republican budget alternative, and will the caucus go along with it?
HENSARLING You can’t get there from here without those kinds of reforms, so I expect it to be in the budget—I hope it’ll be in the budget—and I would certainly support it. I would hope most of the Republicans would, because ultimately it will deliver better health care and retirement security at a more reasonable cost than what the government is promising today but can’t deliver.