WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama challenged a divided Congress on Tuesday to set aside partisanship and tackle a range of tough issues, such as immigration, gun violence and looming spending cuts that threaten “hundreds of thousands of jobs.”
“The American people don't expect government to solve every problem,” the president said in his fourth State of the Union speech before a joint session of Congress at the U.S. Capitol.
“They don't expect those of us in this chamber to agree on every issue. But they do expect us to put the nation's interests before party. They do expect us to forge reasonable compromise where we can.”
A few weeks into his second term, the president laid out some new initiatives, including a proposal to raise the minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $9 an hour. With Oklahoma City prekindergarten teacher Susan Bumgarner sitting in the first lady's box, Obama called for high-quality early education in schools across the country.
“In states that make it a priority to educate our youngest children, like Georgia or Oklahoma, studies show students grow up more likely to read and do math at grade level, graduate high school, hold a job and form more stable families of their own,” the president said.
With a first-grade teacher from Newtown, Conn., in the chamber, along with the parents of a recently slain Chicago girl, the president made an emotional pitch for lawmakers to consider proposals to expand background checks for gun purchases and ban certain semi-automatic weapons and high-capacity magazines.
“Each of these proposals deserves a vote in Congress,” the president said.
“If you want to vote no, that's your choice. But these proposals deserve a vote. Because in the two months since Newtown, more than a thousand birthdays, graduations and anniversaries have been stolen from our lives by a bullet from a gun.”
The president began his speech with a plea to head off the federal spending cuts set to be triggered in two weeks. Part of the 2011 debt ceiling deal, the $1.2 trillion in cuts — spread out over 10 years — would hit almost every federal department and agency, with about half of the reductions borne by the military.
Pentagon leaders warned Tuesday that 800,000 civilian workers may have to be furloughed if the cuts take effect. Studies have shown the cuts would have damaging ripple effects throughout the economy.
Obama wants Congress to replace the cuts — known as the sequester — with a combination of new revenue from tax reform and more targeted spending reductions.
“So let's set party interests aside, and work to pass a budget that replaces reckless cuts with smart savings and wise investments in our future,” Obama said.
“And let's do it without the brinksmanship that stresses consumers and scares off investors. The greatest nation on Earth cannot keep conducting its business by drifting from one manufactured crisis to the next.”
In the Republican response to the president's speech, Sen. Marco Rubio, of Florida, said, “We don't have to raise taxes to avoid the president's devastating cuts to our military. Republicans have passed a plan that replaces these cuts with responsible spending reforms.”
And while Rubio accused Obama of wanting a bigger government, the president said the nation needed a “smarter government that sets priorities and invests in broad-based growth.”
The president also announced that he would accelerate the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, bringing home 34,000 over the next 12 months.
On energy, the president said the natural gas boom had “led to cleaner power and greater energy independence. That's why my administration will keep cutting red tape and speeding up new oil and gas permits.”
He proposed that some of the revenue from oil and gas exploration on public land be used on research and technology “to shift our cars and trucks off oil for good.”
In the Republican response, Rubio said alternative energy sources should be part of the portfolio.
“But God also blessed America with abundant coal, oil and natural gas,” Rubio said. “Instead of wasting more taxpayer money on so-called “clean energy” companies like Solyndra, let's open up more federal lands for safe and responsible exploration.”
The president made a pitch for immigration reform legislation that would guarantee a secure border and include “a responsible pathway to earned citizenship.”
Rubio said, “We need a responsible, permanent solution to the problem of those who are here illegally. But first, we must follow through on the broken promises of the past to secure our borders and enforce our laws.”