State of the Union: Five Things That Might Happen, Five That Won’t
Not much is expected in the final year of a presidential administration, especially one marked by partisan gridlock.
But President Barack Obama in his annual State of the Union address Tuesday night said that he and the Republican Congress “just might surprise the cynics again” in 2016 just as they did in 2015 — one of the most productive years of Obama’s tenure.
In briefings with reporters earlier in the day, Senate leaders of both parties said they would aim for the same. Still, as Obama went through his list of policy proposals during his 59-minute speech, there were far more obvious non-starters than easy wins. In fact, of the proposals around which there is bipartisan agreement, plenty of uncertainty remains.
Here are the five most likely to get done — if everything went Obama’s way — followed by five that likely never will, so long as Obama is president and Republicans control the House and Senate:
New climate change regulations: Obama pledged to continue working toward “solving urgent challenges like climate change.” He’s not going to get any help from Congress. Indeed, many Republican lawmakers deny the phenomenon is even happening. But the outlook for solving climate change depends most on Obama’s executive actions, especially his regulations targeting carbon emissions from power plants. States, trade groups and some utilities are trying to block them in court, but if they pass muster there, Obama will leave office with a substantial environmental legacy.
Republican lawmakers have tried to scuttle Obama’s regulatory agenda, but the president and Democrats in Congress blocked riders in the year-end omnibus spending bill (PL 114-113). Obama vetoed resolutions (S J Res 23, S J Res 24) passed under the Congressional Review Act (PL 104-21) that would have nullified carbon emission restrictions on new and existing power plants.
Curing cancer: Obama challenged lawmakers to “make America the country that cures cancer once and for all.” That’s a high bar, but he’ll at least have Congress’ support. In a strong bipartisan vote, the House passed the so-called 21st Century Cures bill (HR 6) last summer to spur the development of new drugs and revitalize research at the National Institutes of Health, with the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee expected to release its version this year. Then, last month, Congress provided the NIH with a $2 billion boost in funding in the fiscal 2016 omnibus.
Fighting heroin abuse: Obama mentioned “helping people who are battling prescription drug abuse and heroin abuse” as one of the bipartisan issues on which he expects progress in 2016. And, indeed, lawmakers of both parties are concerned about rising heroin abuse rates. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., sponsored a measure (PL 114-91) — which was signed into law last year after it was advanced unanimously by both chambers — to help treat infants who are exposed to opioids in the womb. Republican Rob Portman of Ohio and Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island have teamed up on a wide-ranging package (S 524) that would expand educational and prevention efforts and increase access to drugs that can reverse the effects of overdose. And the omnibus provided $25 million to expand services that address prescription drug abuse and heroin use in high-risk communities.
Overhaul of criminal sentencing: Obama called “criminal justice reform” a bipartisan priority and he’s right. Lawmakers of both parties have coalesced around legislation that would provide more leniency for non-violent drug offenders serving long sentences. A key lawmaker on the issue, House Judiciary Chairman Robert W. Goodlatte, R-Va., expressed optimism Tuesday before Obama’s address, for instance: “I believe that this has support in our leadership,” he said. Sen. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, has used his considerable power as Senate Judiciary chairman to shape a compromise bill (S 2123) that has the support of many of the most powerful senators.
Raising fees to use federal land: Businesses that extract oil and coal on federal land should watch out. Fees are going up. Obama said he wants the rates to “better reflect the costs they impose on taxpayers and our planet.” Republicans in Congress will object, but they probably can’t stop him. The Interior Department last year took comment in advance of a formal rulemaking to raise prices for oil and natural gas and held forums on how it should “modernize” its coal program to ensure taxpayers are getting a fair return.
Five No Ways
Authorize force against the Islamic State: McConnell began his pre-State of the Union briefing saying he wanted to know what Obama planned to do about the Islamic State, the terrorist group that’s overrun parts of Iraq and inspired attacks inside the United States and in Europe. But the prospects of Congress approving the use of force against the group, as Obama requested in his State of the Union, are nil. A wide chasm separates the parties, with Republicans favoring an open-ended authorization and Democrats calling for one that limits the deployment of U.S. ground forces. Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., says he’d rather not do an authorization that passes on party lines and, for his part, McConnell — who controls the Senate floor — last month said he did not want an authorization of force until the next president takes office.
Lifting the Cuba embargo: Congressional Republicans said Obama overstepped when he restored diplomatic ties with Cuba, so they aren’t going to take up his call, in the State of the Union, to lift the trade embargo that Congress codified in 1996 (PL 104-114). It’s true that the business wing of the party favors economic engagement with the Cuban regime but it is up against a deep well of animosity in the party toward dictator Fidel Castro and his brother Raul, who’s now running the country, as well as Cuban-American lawmakers for whom the preservation of the embargo is of vital importance.
Overhauling campaign finance rules: Obama tried to appeal to lawmakers’ self-interest, arguing that none enjoys raising campaign money. But Congress is unlikely to advance campaign finance legislation to make it more difficult for the wealthy and corporations to spend money on politics. That’s because Republicans like the system the way it is and have, in fact, pushed for more deregulation. They view the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision allowing the wealthy to set up loosely regulated political action committees as a boon to them, while most Democrats say they want to get rid of the super PACs.
Closing Guantanamo: Obama, in his 2008 campaign, said he wanted to close the terrorist prison camp at the U.S. military base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. It’s proven an impossible promise to keep. That will remain so in 2016. A provision in the fiscal 2016 omnibus prohibits funds from being used to close the Guantanamo prison or to construct or renovate a facility in the U.S. to take detainees currently held at Guantanamo. That follows myriad congressional restrictions on detainee transfers since 2010.
Education funding: Obama restated some goals from past State of the Unions when he proposed universal pre-K and free community college for all. The result will be the same: No dice. Republicans gave Democrats a compromise on pre-K funding in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (PL 114-95) reauthorization late last year, including a $250 million authorization for federal pre-K programs. However, Republicans are hesitant to add another year to the K-12 enterprise, which they say isn’t serving the children it has well enough. Republicans favor targeted funding approaches, such as competitive grants, that give state and local education authorities flexibility over how to use the money. Republicans say the same goes for community college: Let the states decide how to spend their federal education funds.
Ed Felker, Melanie Zanona, Todd Ruger, Kate Ackley, Sarah Chacko, Ryan Lucas and Rachel Oswald contributed to this report.