Senators react to the State of the Union: 'We're moving ahead'

The president’s State of the Union message on Tuesday was clear: more action from government, even if it means employing executive power. How is Congress reacting? Judy Woodruff asked two members for their takes, Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., and Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz..

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GWEN IFILL: President Obama hit the road today to build popular support for his State of the Union agenda.

NewsHour congressional correspondent Kwame Holman reports.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: It's time to give America a raise.

KWAME HOLMAN: The president kicked off his post-State of the Union tour at a Costco store in Lanham, Maryland. He highlighted the chain's starting entry-level pay of $11.50 an hour, more than $4 above the federal minimum.

BARACK OBAMA: So, right now, in Congress, there's a bill that would lift the federal minimum wage to $10.10, $10.10 -- $10.10, that's easy. It will give more businesses more customers with more money to spend. I guarantee you, if workers have a little more money in their pocket, they will spend more at Costco.

KWAME HOLMAN: While Congress considers, Mr. Obama plans to act on his own, raising the minimum to $10.10 for those working under future federal contracts with an executive order. He made that a recurring theme last night, serving notice he's through waiting on key issues.

BARACK OBAMA: But what I offer tonight is a set of concrete, practical proposals to speed up growth, strengthen the middle class and build new ladders of opportunity into the middle class. Some require congressional action, and I'm eager to work with all of you. But America does not stand still, and neither will I.

KWAME HOLMAN: In addition to the minimum wage hike, the president also plans executive action to streamline the permitting process to build factories that use natural gas, increase protection of environmentally sensitive federal land from gas and oil exploration, and create a new savings program, myRA, for workers whose employers don't provide retirement plans.

He signed that order at a second stop today, a U.S. steel plant near Pittsburgh.

BARACK OBAMA: We want every American who works hard and takes responsibility to retire with dignity after decades of honest work. These are real, practical, achievable solutions to help shift the odds back a little bit in favor of more working and middle-class Americans.

KWAME HOLMAN: The enthusiasm the president found for his 2014 agenda on the road is unlikely to be matched with bipartisan support back in Washington.

Congressional Republicans roundly challenged his vow to bypass them with executive orders and pointed out any serious accomplishments will be hard to achieve without their support.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL, R-Ky.: It's clear President Obama missed the mark last night.

KWAME HOLMAN: On the Senate floor, Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell sounded that note today.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL: He refused to reach across the aisle in a way that would lead to immediate job growth opportunities. That's distressing news for our country. It's especially disheartening -- disheartening for the middle class. The president wants to keep doing the same old thing, just without as much input from the people's elected representatives in Congress, basically, all the same policies, less of that pesky democratic accountability.

KWAME HOLMAN: Despite the divisions, the parties stood together last night when the president honored Army Sergeant 1st Class Cory Remsburg, who was badly wounded in a roadside bombing in Afghanistan. The president hopes for more unity as he continues to sell his State of the Union initiatives tomorrow in Waukesha, Wis., and Nashville, Tenn.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So what are the prospects for the president and Congress to find common ground in 2014?

We pose that question to two members of the Senate, Democrat Tim Kaine of Virginia and Republican Jeff Flake of Arizona.

Senators, welcome to the "NewsHour."

Senator Flake, I'm going to start with you.

Looking back on what the president had to say last night, do you think it makes it more likely that Washington is going to address the country's major problems?

SEN. JEFF FLAKE, R-Ariz.: I think there are a couple of areas where we do have some agreement, where the Senate has already acted, for example, immigration reform.

The president said that he'd like to see a bill there. The House needs to take action, and I think it will. So that's one area. Also, trade, the president needs trade promotion authority. That's something that he will likely get a lot more Republican votes for than Democratic votes. But he's got to work to round up some Democratic votes for that.

That's an area where I think we will see both parties working together.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Senator Kaine, what about you? Do you think it's more likely things are going to get done as a result of what the president said?

SEN. TIM KAINE, D-Va.: I think, Judy, it is, and not just because of what the president has said.

Even though our approval is still pretty low here in Congress, we have been on a bit of a roll. We got a two-year budget bill at the end of December. We got an appropriations bill done in mid-January. Yesterday, here on the Hill, there was an announced conference deal on the farm bill, a five-year farm bill, which we have been struggling to find now for a number of years.

And I agree with what Jeff said. I was sitting with a Republican House member, retiring Virginian Frank Wolf, who has been in the House for 34 years, kind of back in the corner last night. And when the topic of immigration reform came up, I asked Frank what he saw the thought, and he said: Look, I -- it will go through some twists and turns.

But he was feeling relatively optimistic about the House doing an immigration reform bill. It will look different than the Senate bill, but then we will -- we will get in conference and trade. And there may be other issues. So, we are moving ahead. We have to get over the debt ceiling hurdle. I'm sure we can do that without a stumble. But I detect a little more willingness to work together here.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, let me pick up quickly on immigration.

Senator Flake, you both have now said you think that's a real possibility. Do you think that there's going to -- that there could be an agreement that includes a pathway to citizenship?

JEFF FLAKE: Well, the Senate included a pathway to citizenship. That's what I prefer, and I think the Senate prefers in general.

The House may say that those who are here illegally can access current avenues to citizenship, but no special path would be created. That would be a kind of hybrid that might win the day. I think that that's a step forward. I think that's something that the president could and would accept.

So, yes, it may not be exactly like the Senate did, but that's fine.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But you could accept that, and you're saying you think the president would?

JEFF FLAKE: I don't want to say where the president is, but it's something I could accept. And I would hope that the president would as well.

Not everybody who is here desires to be a citizen. In 1986, it was made relatively easy for people to achieve citizenship. And, in the end, I think fewer than a third ever did. But my own view is, if you're going to be here for 20 or 30 years, you ought to have the rights and responsibilities that come with citizenship. But not everyone feels that way.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Senator Kaine, what about you? Is that language you could live with, if it's a short of a path to citizenship?

TIM KAINE: Well, I really want to -- I really want to keep battling for that path to citizenship, because I don't think having kind of a permanent, locked-in, second-class status is a good idea.

However, I think that Jeff is probably right. If we're going to predict what the House bill might be before it goes into conference, I think they will do the border security and they will do visa reform and maybe DREAM Act provisions. But I think, on citizenship, they might fall short of where the Senate is.

That will then be a challenging negotiation. But we shouldn't -- you know, we shouldn't predetermine where that negotiation will go. Getting the House to pass something would be big, and then we have our conferees, and folks like Jeff who worked on the bill hard getting in that room and trying to figure out the best possible deal.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Senator Flake, what about some of the other things the president talk about? He talked about wanting to build ladders of opportunity into the middle class. Is his prescription the right prescription? And, if not what, is?

JEFF FLAKE: I think what is the right prescription is to have conducive tax and regulatory policy to allow people to climb that ladder.

And I have my differences with where the president has been on that issue, particularly on regulatory policy. It's very difficult for people to get ahead. We have federal agencies, partly because the Congress really hasn't functioned for several years, that have just taken it upon themselves to impose regulations that make it very difficult for businesses to flourish and to hire.

And so I think there are things that we can agree on. The president talked about fundamental tax reform. I think we'd all like to see that. It rarely happens this close to an election, but hope springs eternal.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, it sounds like the parties are still far apart on some of these formulas.

Senator Kaine, do you see the prospect of the two parties coming together on some of these things?

TIM KAINE: I think we can.

But these issues, the economic ones, may be more difficult, because I do think, on the Democratic side, we're strongly in support of increasing the minimum wage. Had the minimum wage just risen with inflation from when it was last increased, it would be about at where we're going to hopefully peg it as we move forward.

And I think that will be very positive in creating those ladders into the middle class. And then there are the education and human capital strategies. You know, the most -- probably the best ladder into the middle class is a -- is training, either education or career and technical training that will enable you to have the skills that we need in the 21st century.

And the president talked about that last night, career and technical training, taking some of the federal programs that exist and trying to streamline them and make them better. That was an applause line that reverberated in both chambers, both parties. I think we all recognize we can do better there.

But I think the human capital strategies and then dealing with the minimum wage, those are things that we have to do, because we're seeing there's a lot of inequality. And it's not just inequality. We need more mobility. There are going to be people at the lower end of the wage scale, but they have to feel like they have a path where they can -- they can succeed and climb. And a lot of people aren't feeling that now.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And I do sense a difference between the two of you.

Senator Flake, what about the president's stating last night, yes, I want to work with you, Republicans, when you want to work with me, but when you don't, I think that I need to take executive action? And he listed several he plans to execute.

JEFF FLAKE: Well, I would say there's very little that he can do in a productive way to get this economy jump-started if he tries to do it unilaterally.

Anything that is going to do something for the economy, whether it's creating certainty on the fiscal side, some reform of our entitlement programs, or, as I said, conducive tax and regulatory policy, that's going to take cooperation, collaboration with the Congress. So I think there's very, very little productive he can do on his own.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How do you see that, quickly, Senator Kaine?

TIM KAINE: I want the president to use all of his executive powers, just like other presidents do.

This president actually, in terms of executive orders per year, has probably less than a lot of our most recent presidents. But I do agree with Jeff. Probably the big things that will really help the economy will require Congress working together. And we have got one staring us in the face.

Having gotten over two the two-year budget deal that was great, not perfect, but we got a deal, omnibus appropriations, we do have to get over this debt ceiling hurdle in the next few weeks, do it together, not stumble. If we do, I think we will have shown that we are trying to provide some certainty, which could be very helpful in the private sector.

I know I was talking to Christine Lagarde of the International Monetary Fund recently, and she said, if you get over that hurdle, then this two-year budget deal, you will start to see some economic lift. And that is the kind of thing -- the president can't do that. That's on us to try to find that accord between the Senate and the House.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Very fast, final yes-or-no question to both of you. Do you think this year is going to be more productive than last?

Senator Flake?

JEFF FLAKE: Yes, more productive.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Senator...

TIM KAINE: I agree with Jeff on that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Very interesting.

Senator Tim Kaine, Senator Jeff Flake, thank you.

JEFF FLAKE: Thank you.

TIM KAINE: Thank you.