How will GOP lawmakers react to Obama's State of the Union agenda?

In his annual address to Congress and the nation, President Obama is expected to lay out plans to address American income inequality. Judy Woodruff talks to Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., about bipartisan cooperation and whether or not the president will lead action via Congress, rather than use independent executive action.


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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now we look ahead to the State of the Union.

President Obama will address hundreds of lawmakers and millions of Americans tomorrow night from the U.S. Capitol, laying out his agenda for the coming year. But how will his message be received by congressional Republicans?

We raise that question with Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri. He serves as vice chairman of the Senate Republican Conference.

Welcome to the program.

SEN. ROY BLUNT, R-Mo.: Good to be with you, Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, how would you describe the state of the union right now, Senator Blunt?

ROY BLUNT: Well, I would say it's just not working the way it ought to work.

And I hope we can find a way to do a better job. It is an incredibly frustrating experience to be here. It's got to be a lot more frustrating for the people that we work for. And, frankly, nobody is in as good a place to lead the end of that than the president of the United States.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, the White House is saying the president tomorrow night is going to broadly focus on trying to do something about the lack of economic mobility in this country, the growing gap between the rich and the poor. Do you agree that that should be a main priority for the country?

ROY BLUNT: Well, I would say the bigger importance is how you move people who are not where they would like to be up to where they ought to be. It shouldn't be about setting one group against the other or talking about how we can take from this group to give to somebody else.

It should be how you create that kind of mobility. And the White House also has repeatedly said over the last couple of days, starting with the president, that he has a pen to sign executive orders with and a phone to mobilize support. That's giving up on the Congress, but more importantly, it's giving up on the Constitution.

The president needs to lead us out of this, rather than to be the person who says, nothing can be done about this, so I'm just going to do what I can do by myself. He's not going to be able to do a lot by himself. And it's not the way we ought to get things done.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, the White House is saying the reason the president is going to be proposing some executive actions is because they say the Congress wouldn't cooperate with the president last year.

ROY BLUNT: Well, I think the president is, again, the person who is in the best position to find out what he would like to get done that's possible.

There are lots of things that I have found ways to work with Democrats on. Senator King and I have a bill to reorganize the regulating process. Senator Stabenow and I have a bill, the Excellence in Mental Health Act. Senator Brown and I have one on manufacturing. Senator Bennet and I and Senator Warren and I both have one on infrastructure.

There's a lot that Republicans and Democrats are willing to do together. But it may not be exactly the way the president wanted to get it done. He needs to figure out how to lead us out of that. He is in the best position to do that. I would like to see that tomorrow night, but based on what I have heard the last week, it doesn't sound like there's going to be a lot of that, as much as, why can't you guys work together? And since you can't, I'm just going to do whatever I think I can do on my own.

I just don't think, Judy, that's the right answer for the country or the right direction to try to lead us in.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, do you think there will be more -- a willingness to cooperate more on the part of Republicans this year?

ROY BLUNT: Well, I think it's not just about Republicans.

We haven't had the appropriations process work in the Senate like it should one time in the last seven years. I have only been here three of those. But we have got a new chairman, Barbara Mikulski, a Democrat, who I think very much wants to bring these bills to the floor, debate the priorities.

There is only one reason these bills haven't come to the floor. And that's because the majority didn't let them. The Appropriations Committee voted them out virtually every time. But we have not debated them. We have not voted on them. We have not set priorities.

I think Democrats and Republicans in the House and the Senate want to get back to the way things are supposed to be done. And I hope that the majority in the Senate lets them do that and I hope the majority in the House cooperates.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, you mentioned a couple things that you're working with senators on the other side of the aisle. What do you think stands a real chance of getting passed this year? What about immigration reform, for example?

ROY BLUNT: Well, you know, I think if you take immigration reform and you break it up and try to solve it in pieces rather than all in one package, you have got a much better chance to do that.

And, frankly, I was the main vote counter in the House most of the time I was there. So I still think of that 218 that's half of 435 margin in the House. You have got a better 218 votes to decide how to secure the border, may not be the same people that are the best people to decide what to do with people who came to the country illegally or stayed illegally.

And those groups may not be the best 218 people to decide what are the real work force needs of the country. I think there's a way to get this done. I think the comprehensive bill that has been tried now for a decade hasn't worked. Let's see what happens if you divide that up and get a majority in the House and a majority in the Senate to solve these problems, one problem at a time.

We all know they need to be solved. Now, let's find the best way to solve them.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, what is -- is there -- give us -- is there another example of something where you think Republicans and Democrats can work together this year?

ROY BLUNT: I think so.

Senator Stabenow and I have made real progress, I believe, in getting attention to the Excellence in Mental Health Act that would allow community mental health centers and federally qualified centers to add behavioral health. It's one of the things that people can rally around based on the tragedies we have seen, the violent tragedies.

People with mental health problems are much more likely to be the victim than they are to be the perpetrator, but it does call attention, these tragedies call attention to the one consistent thing, is somebody with a behavioral health problem that for whatever reason hasn't been dealt with. I think that's an area.

Infrastructure, I hear all the time Americans and Missourians talking about how we have got to do a better job with that. And we're looking at tools in the toolbox. Senator Bennet and I have one that really was started by John Delaney, a Democrat over in the House. It has 50 House sponsors, an equal number of Democrats and Republicans.

Senator Warner and I have an infrastructure effort that we think would be another tool in the toolbox. I think we can get these things done. And the American people are ready to see us solve some problems. And it could start back to that appropriating process with just publicly and with full amendments debating the priorities of how we spend people's money and then figuring out how many tools we put on the table that allow the government to do its job in a better way.

There are lots of new things out there, from smartphones to 3-D printing to all kinds of American energy, that we're not really putting our arms around the way we could as a country.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We hear you, Senator Roy Blunt, and we thank you for joining us.

ROY BLUNT: Good to talk to you.