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Analysis: Obama speech does little to prod Congress toward bold action

U.S. President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union speech on Capitol Hill in Washington, February 12, 2013. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
U.S. President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union speech on Capitol Hill in Washington, February 12, 2013. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

By Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The pomp and soaring rhetoric of President Barack Obama's State of the Union address roused his Capitol audience to standing ovations, but a day after, the U.S. Congress was no closer to achieving major accomplishments in 2013 than it was before Tuesday's speech.

In his annual address to a joint session of Congress - one designed to set the tone in Washington for the coming year - Obama offered plenty of big legislative goals: gun control, higher minimum wage, deficit reduction, immigration reform, climate change.

All are daily topics of conversation in the halls of Congress, and Obama tried to inspire lawmakers to act on each of those fronts.

But the Democrats and Republicans who jockey for power in a divided Congress see eye-to-eye on very few of these matters even though polls say voters yearn for cooperation over confrontation.

And so small steps, at best, are likely on a few but probably not all of the marquee issues.

"It's going to be a modest year," predicted Senator John Thune of South Dakota, a member of the Senate's Republican leadership. "In terms of actually accomplishing something, I think there isn't going to be a whole lot there," he said in an interview.

If Thune is correct, Obama is in for a year that sees many of his initiatives advance in the Democratic-controlled Senate, only to die, or be trimmed down, in the Republican-held House.

Then, it will be up to voters in the mid-term congressional elections next year to decide on whether they are happy with that.

LEGISLATIVE TRASH CAN

The morning after the speech began with Republican House Speaker John Boehner dismissing Obama's call to raise the national minimum wage to $9 an hour, up from the current $7.25. "Let's declare that in the wealthiest nation on Earth, no one who works full-time should have to live in poverty," Obama urged.

Boehner, a former small businessman from Ohio, saw things differently. "When you raise the price of employment, guess what happens? You get less of it." With those words, he appeared to drop Obama's idea into a legislative trash can.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Capitol building, Republicans in the Senate Judiciary Committee were challenging Obama's comprehensive immigration reform plans, and even some broad reform proposals signed off on by some senior Republican senators. Their focus was on first securing the southwestern border with Mexico.

Republican Senator John Cornyn, who is up for re-election in Texas next year, said the federal government has "a long, long way to go" before it achieves a secure border.

Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, echoing the sentiment of many of his House Republican colleagues, advised against comprehensive reforms. Deal with "discrete" bits of immigration reform rather than a "massive" reform bill, he advised.

That likely was Sessions' way of saying that Democrats ought to forget about achieving their goal of setting 11 million undocumented foreigners in the United States on a path to citizenship.

Obama's plan for universal pre-school education? How are you going to pay for it without raising deficits, Republican after Republican said, seeming to doom the idea.

In one of the most emotional moments of Tuesday's speech, Obama referred to the gun violence that has racked cities and towns across the United States. "The families of Newtown deserve a vote. The families of Aurora deserve a vote. The families of Oak Creek, and Tucson, and Blacksburg, and the countless other communities ripped open by gun violence - they deserve a simple vote," Obama said.

Families might see that vote, sort of.

"Guns? We'll have the debate but if something passes and it well could pass the Senate, I'd be real hesitant to predict they would get an outcome in the House on that," Senator Thune said.

One area where some sort of legislative action will be forced is on budget bills in coming weeks and months as the U.S. government runs out of funds on March 27 and exhausts its borrowing authority around August.

But again, there will be a big fight over whether those bills are enacted with deficit reductions that are achieved only through spending cuts, as Republicans demand, or are coupled with tax increases on the rich, as many Democrats insist.

And lawmakers from the two parties are at odds over how to avoid the "sequestration" of sweeping public spending cuts.

Amid all the nay-saying, at least one optimist was not willing to give up on a robust year in Congress. Democratic Senator Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia who is not running for re-election in 2014, told Reuters: "I've only got two years left. I don't want one of them to be 'modest.'"

(Additional reporting by Thomas Ferraro; Editing by Fred Barbash and Cynthia Osterman)

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