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Republican, Democrat SOTU Seatmates React To Obama


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're going to spend a good part of the program today talking about the president's State of the Union address last night, and reactions to it. In a few minutes, we'll have a Newsmaker Interview with one of the president's senior advisers, Valerie Jarrett. She joins us to talk about not only what the president said, but how he can actually move forward on many of these proposals. But first, we want to turn to two members of Congress who were in attendance last night.

Congressman Michael Grimm is a Republican. He represents New York's 13th District. That includes parts of Staten Island and Brooklyn. Also with us, congresswoman Loretta Sanchez. She is a Democrat who represents parts of Orange County in California's 47th District. They sat together at the State of the Union address last night, and they are seated together once again, in the studios on Capitol Hill. Welcome to you both. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

REP. LORETTA SANCHEZ: Thank you, thank you.


MARTIN: First, can I just ask: How did it happen that the two of you decided to sit together? I know this is something that started last year, in the wake of that awful shooting of Arizona congresswoman Gabriel Giffords, where a number of members of different political parties decided to sit together as a - kind of a show of - a gesture of national unity. And so how was it decided that the two of you would sit together?

SANCHEZ: He asked me.

GRIMM: There you go, absolutely.

MARTIN: I'm tempted to ask who saw who first but...


SANCHEZ: He asked me, he asked me - he asked me out on a date. I said OK, let's sit over there at the State of the Union.

MARTIN: At the malt shop.

GRIMM: And there you go.

MARTIN: Are you friends? Do you have a friendship? Are you on the same committee together or...

SANCHEZ: Yes, of course.

GRIMM: No, we are friends and it's, you know, I think that we're probably on opposite ends of the spectrum on many different issues.

SANCHEZ: Not always.

GRIMM: But - and not always - but it is proof that you can find some common ground and regardless - even if we have different views on certain things, we can still be civil and still have a conversation like adults, and try to work things through.

SANCHEZ: I told him yesterday he's my Ricky to my Lucy.



MARTIN: Well, let's talk about the whether there's any common ground on what the president talked about last night. The bulk of his address was focused on the economy and, as he defined it, economic inequality. He said: The defining issue of our time is keeping alive the promise that hard work will lead to a better life.

Let's play a short clip for those who may not heard it. Here it is:


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: No challenge is more urgent. No debate is more important. We can either settle for a country where a shrinking number of people do really well while a growing number of Americans barely get by, or we can restore an economy where everyone gets a fair shot, and everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules.


MARTIN: I think it's only fair to give the loyal opposition the first crack at this one. So congressman Grimm, as a member of the loyal opposition, do you agree?

GRIMM: Well, I agree with the fundamental principle that we should all have equal opportunity. For me, that's what the United States stands for; that's what the American dream is. That's what my parents gave me, an opportunity. But I think the president takes it a step further and tries to guarantee outcomes. I also think that he uses a big- government approach to bring forth all opportunity, and that just doesn't work.

You know, the success of the United States has been that we're a capitalist society. We have a free market, and everyone should have access and opportunity. But we certainly shouldn't be - not in any way - guaranteeing outcomes from the federal government.

MARTIN: Congresswoman Sanchez, Mr. Grimm says that the president is actually trying to guarantee outcomes. And other members of his party have called this, you know, quote-unquote, class warfare. What do you say?

SANCHEZ: I think that President Obama did great last night. I think anytime you can start a speech with, we got Osama bin Laden; I got the troops out of Iraq; and GM is selling cars all over the world - I think from the very get-go, he told people, we're working on this, it's getting there, and we're going to have jobs. And with respect to the outcomes - I mean, you have only to look at General Motors to understand it's not a free market.

We, the Congress, put money towards that, and they're coming back. They're making more cars. They're selling more cars, better cars, and they're the number one automaker in the world today. And that was because we strategically decided it was worth having manufacturing, and good jobs attached to that, here in the United States. I think he did a great job.

MARTIN: Do you think he made an effective enough case for the role of government in the economy, even if you don't agree with congressman Grimm that he's actually trying to guarantee outcomes. Do you think he made any effective enough case?

SANCHEZ: Absolutely. Again, we turn to the GM situation and you understand that people are getting jobs, we're selling cars, we're the number one car automaker now across the world. And in a very strategic way, we put some outlay, some monies on the table. And we are paid back with interest, and we have jobs in manufacturing. And that's what we need to look at. We need to look and say, how do we bring back manufacturing to the United States? And it wasn't just the fact that we put the money in. It's the fact that GM retooled, rethought, and made better cars that Americans actually want.

MARTIN: We're talking about the president's State of the Union address last night. It was delivered last night. We're talking with two lawmakers: congresswoman Loretta Sanchez - she's a Democrat from California; and Michael Grimm is a Republican who represents a district in New York. Let me just play another a clip from the president last night, talking about - he obviously, as is customary in the State of the Union address - or at least, has become customary - he had a lot of legislative proposals, but he also addressed the fact that this is an election year, and addressing the question that many people would have about whether it's actually realistic to propose these kinds of things in an election year, where there's already a very sharp partisan divide. Here it is:


OBAMA: Now, I recognize that people watching tonight have differing views about taxes and debt, energy and health care. But no matter what party they belong to, I bet most Americans are thinking the same thing right about now - nothing will get done in Washington this year, or next year, or maybe even the year after that, because Washington is broken. Can you blame them for feeling a little cynical?

MARTIN: Congresswoman Sanchez, couldn't you argue that the president's being a little cynical by introducing these measures, given that this Congress - which is your House - is controlled by the Republicans, has been very skeptical, particularly about his economic initiatives. Can you argue that he's being cynical, too?

SANCHEZ: You know, politics goes on all the time, especially in the House of Representatives. I mean, we run every two years - if you think about it. So we play - in particular, in the House, we play with politics in and around elections looming all the time around the corner from us. If I would decide not to introduce legislation simply because there were political fears, or the fear that the Republicans won't accept or that I couldn't find the votes, then I'd probably never introduce legislation.

But the fact of the matter is, we introduce legislation because we believe in it, because we believe we can go around, because we want to work hard. We want to find those votes. And so if the president wants to propose something and he can get enough votes on it, then he should be doing it. He shouldn't just say, it's a political year so I'm not going to do it; or, the Republicans control the House, and I'm not going to do it. And all you have to do is go back and look at history, and you can see proposals that came from presidents when the House was held by the opposite party and they became law.

MARTIN: Mr. Grimm, did you hear anything in the president's speech last night that you can agree on, or support?

GRIMM: Well, I mean, obviously there's a lot of common ground. The question is whether I believe the president is sincere and genuine with wanting to work with us across the aisle. For example, taxes - everyone knows that the tax system is broken, and we need to work on that. So there's common ground that, you know, I've been beating the drum on for an entire year; I know a lot of my Republican colleagues have. But he really hasn't met us at the table.

You know, again, I think it comes back to - yes, it was a very rhetorical speech; he's a great orator. But you know, he ended with, you have to have each other's backs. And he used the - a military analogy of, you know, going up those stairs. And having been in harm's way for 16 years - you know, I was in combat with the Marine Corps, and I was a special agent with the FBI. I've put my life in others' arms, and vice versa.

You know, just recently, when we - they wanted to extend the payroll tax, the president himself - I was there - said, it would be inexcusable not to extend it for a year. I really believed the president. And we said, here's an opportunity to find common ground, and show the people before the year is over that we can work together.

And then he did a complete reversal - and, I feel, pulled the rug out from under myself and my Republican colleagues. And we ended up with the two-month deal and Republicans looking terrible, like we wanted to raise taxes, which is absurd.

So, you know, after something like that happens, no, I don't trust that the president has my back. I don't believe that he wants to work with me. I think that he wants to run against a broken Congress - which is why he mentioned it - because he can't run on his failed record or his failed policy.

MARTIN: We just heard from congressman Michael Grimm. He is a Republican who represents New York's 13th District. Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez is a Democrat. She represents California's 47th District. They sat together at last night's State of the Union address, and they were both kind enough to join us together from the studios on Capitol Hill. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.