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.
NJ Do you accept Obama’s construct that, to be competitive in the future, we have to spend more on education, infrastructure, and research?
HENSARLING I’m not sure how borrowing more money from the Chinese makes us more competitive with the Chinese. That’s just not intuitively obvious to me. Every time last night the president said “investment,” a lot of the American people heard, “Let’s go out, borrow 40 cents on the dollar mainly from the Chinese, and bill our children and grandchildren.”
NJ As someone who supported the Simpson-Bowles deficit-reduction package, do you think the president needed to embrace it more closely than he did?
DURBIN I did vote for Simpson-Bowles, which shocked a lot of liberals. I thought at the time that it was a reasonable approach to a very challenging problem. I argued for a couple things in there that ended up being part of the final work product. One of them was to be careful when you hit the deficit brake. You hit it too soon and you could stall our recovery from the recession. I think the president is trying to walk that path, trying to make sure we spend some and don’t make spending cuts in great magnitude that could really hurt us in terms of this economic recovery.
The second thing that the president alluded to last night was a key pillar of what I wanted to see in this Bowles-Simpson report and a key part of their final recommendation: Take a look at tax expenditures. What Bowles and Simpson did is put it on the table and at least debate it, and the president said the same thing last night.
NJ Should Obama specifically embrace the commission’s recommendations?
DURBIN I think that’s unlikely. I voted for it because that was my choice, yes or no. And I think the president does not want to wear that collar into the next election. He is going to move toward things in that report that he thinks are good, and last night he did. But I don’t think it’s going to be fully embraced.
NJ Senator Alexander was here and said the house is on fire now, meaning we have to cut spending much more deeply than the president was saying.
DURBIN I think if we are not in a mind-set of dealing with the challenges of this new economy, we are going to lose sight that this is not a deficit issue—it’s an issue of America’s competitiveness. If we don’t see this competitive challenge as great as, or even greater than, the current deficit, than we are going to have the worst of both worlds: a deficit, and a falling competitive edge in this country.
NJ What do you make of the argument, again, that these are all good things to do and we need to do them, but we can’t afford them now?
DURBIN In terms of what we need to do in research, innovation, and education, when we decide we cannot afford that, I can tell you, we’re going to be doing one another’s laundry in this country and wondering why we’re falling behind a lot of other countries in the world.
NJ Senator Graham, you are just back from Afghanistan.
GRAHAM As of three hours ago. If this makes any sense, it will be a miracle.
NJ Tell us a little bit about your trip and also about the trajectory you think we are on in Afghanistan at this point.
GRAHAM I was there nine days doing some Reserve duty, part of a [congressional delegation]. I was there three months ago, and the last 90 days have been tremendous in terms of increased security. Also, in my lane, the rule of law, you see tremendous progress. But there are some real obstacles. I am more optimistic than ever. The momentum is on our side, but structural problems with sustainability include corruption in Afghanistan and insurgents from Pakistan.
NJ In the current Congress, what do you think is going to happen to civilian aid for Afghanistan and Pakistan?
GRAHAM You have to remember that the attacks of 9/11 came from Afghanistan when it became a failed state controlled by the Taliban. It cost less than a million dollars to plan and execute the attacks on 9/11. How much money have we spent as a nation to deal with the consequences of that terrorist attack? The lives we’ve lost? So I understand the need to put everything on the table, but if you don’t understand how money affects our security in Afghanistan and Pakistan, I think you’re making a serious mistake as a policymaker.
NJ You were for civility when civility wasn’t cool. Do you think last night was the beginning of anything real?
GRAHAM Here’s what I’d tell my colleagues about civility: Go to Iraq and Afghanistan, and spend a little time around people who have a common purpose. Nobody cares if you’re a Democrat or a Republican in Afghanistan. They just care if you can do the job. And they don’t shoot at us based on our party affiliation. So every time I go to Afghanistan and Iraq and serve for a week or two, it’s good for my morale, because I’m around Americans and coalition partners who have a focus and a desire to succeed, knowing that failure is not an option. I would give anything if the United States Congress, for one month, could act in accordance with the way our men and women are serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. I know what I need to do as a senator to help my country. And these young men and women know what they need to do in Iraq to make us safe. They do it every day. Worst thing that happens to me is a bad commercial. Worst thing that can happen to them is they could lose their life.
This article appears in the January 29, 2011, edition of National Journal Magazine.