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September 23, 2014

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State of the Union:

President’s call for action garners mixed reactions from Nevada leaders

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Larry Downing / Associated Press

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid leads Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Minority Whip John Cornyn to the front of the chamber before President Barack Obama delivers the State of Union address Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2014, before a joint session of Congress.

Nevada’s representatives spent the days and weeks leading up to Tuesday’s State of the Union address highlighting their most pressing 2014 priorities, from renewing unemployment benefits to passing immigration reform, and from raising the minimum wage to restoring full military pensions.

But while President Barack Obama spoke emphatically about many of those points Tuesday night, it was clear that without congressional cooperation, Nevadans will have to wait awhile for most of those changes to take place.

Obama promised a “year of action” during his State of the Union address, in the face of congressional inaction that had stalled many sweeping ventures.

“Wherever and whenever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families, that’s what I’m going to do,” Obama promised.

But the reach of his executive authority is limited and cannot extend to some of the policy areas where in Nevada, there is the most urgent need.

A call to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 anchored the package of regulatory changes the president described as “a set of concrete, practical proposals to speed up growth, strengthen the middle class, and build new ladders of opportunity into the middle class.”

“Giving hardworking Americans a raise by increasing the minimum wage is a good place to start,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said in a statement following the speech, in which he praised Obama. “The Senate will vote on this proposal in the coming weeks.”

But the chances of a national minimum wage hike passing the Senate, where Republicans have labeled it a “job killer” are slim. That leaves the president with a more limited option at his disposal: Raising the minimum wage for federal contractors to $10.10. But that change will only potentially affect the bottom line for a limited number of Nevada’s workers.

The president also called on Congress to work together to restore unemployment benefits. Since funding lapsed on Dec. 28, over 20,000 Nevadans have lost benefits they would have otherwise received.

“This Congress needs to restore the unemployment insurance you just let expire for 1.6 million people,” Obama said accusingly to Congress, adding that he plans to convene business leaders at the White House later this week to announce a national initiative to hire more of the long-term unemployed.

But Obama’s new initiative to get the long-term unemployed hired didn’t inspire great hope that Congress would follow suit and restore unemployment benefits funding, even in some of his strongest Democratic supporters.

“I don’t think they’re going to pass an unemployment extension,” Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., said after the State of the Union address. “I think that’s a priority, but I don’t see the Republicans coming up with a way to pay for that immediately. I don’t want to say it’s dead, but I think it’s tough.”

The president also talked about increasing investment in solar energy, technology in schools, and individual transportation projects.

Although Obama can take some regulatory steps to streamline processes, the ultimate success of projects in those areas depends on the investment of private businesses or the availability of federal appropriations. Therein lies the rub: In most cases, Obama’s ability to circumvent congressional gridlock entirely is simply limited by the boundaries of executive power.

To Nevada Republicans, this might come as a relief.

“Rather than using this call for action as a tool to bypass Congress, I hope that the president will join my colleagues and me to push for policies that will make growing jobs easier and more affordable,” Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., said in a statement.

“Tonight the president laid out his agenda for the next year … none of it will get accomplished if everyone talks past one another trying to score political points,” Rep. Joe Heck, R-Nev., said in a statement.

Nevada Democrats, however, said they understood the president’s desire to circumvent Congress.

“I support separation of power, and I don’t want to see Congress lose power to the executive … but I understand his frustration,” Titus said. “If everything is stalemated, he has certain power and he should use it … He asked for Congress’ help, it wasn’t like he wanted to be a cowboy about this.”

“What I’m not comfortable with is a faction of Tea Party ideologues holding our process hostage,” Rep. Steven Horsford, D-Nev., said.

Some of the president’s Democratic supporters had actually wanted Obama to brandish his executive authority more forcefully in the State of the Union address — especially when it came to immigration.

"If we are serious about economic growth, it is time to heed the call of business leaders, labor leaders, faith leaders, and law enforcement — and fix our broken immigration system," Obama said during the speech. "So let’s get immigration reform done this year."

But the president has eschewed calls from House Democrats — including Titus and Horsford — to exercise his executive authority by ordering an end to all deportations while a comprehensive immigration bill is still pending before Congress. In November, the president told a critic at one of his speeches, simply, that he “can’t.”

“The president said he couldn’t do the deferred action before he did the deferred action. He said that he couldn’t increase federal employee contractor pay, but he just did it,” Horsford said Tuesday. “With the failure of Congress to act, he’s going to use the power of his pen and his phone to get stuff done. It’s his prerogative at this point.”

Obama has not threatened his executive authority on immigration since he was re-elected, in apparent deference to the tenuous political climate surrounding immigration reform in the House of Representatives, and apparent desire to maintain one of the strongest incentives toward concluding a comprehensive bill.

Elsewhere, the president was much more aggressive with his call to work around Congress Tuesday, even calling on local officials to take on the practice.

“To every mayor, governor and state legislator in America, I say, you don’t have to wait for Congress to act,” Obama said. “Americans will support you if you take this on.”

Obama highlighted the minimum wage, public-private partnerships, and early-childhood education as areas in which state and local officials could take the lead.

Again, it’s not entirely clear how well this sales pitch would resonate in Nevada.

“On minimum wage, we’ve led the way,” Horsford said, pointing out how Nevada’s minimum wage, at $8.25 per hour, is already a dollar higher than the national average.

And neither Horsford nor Titus thought that Nevada would be swiftly forthcoming with pre-kindergarten funding.

“Nevada is pretty stingy with funding for education,” Titus said.

But even with all the extra-congressional strategizing apparent in the president’s plans for 2014, there were a few moments when it appeared Congress might actually respond to Obama’s pleas for cooperation.

A call for instituting equal pay for women received rounds of bipartisan applause — even Heller, who has voted against equal-pay laws in the past, rose to his feet to applaud the president’s notion that “a woman deserves equal pay for equal work.”

Calls to cooperate on immigration were also met with similar bipartisan approval — at least from the Republican senators who had already voted for comprehensive reform.

And a proposal to rewrite the tax code was perhaps received most warmly of all by Republicans in the assembly.

“Both Democrats and Republicans have argued that our tax code is riddled with wasteful, complicated loopholes that punish businesses investing here,” Obama said during his speech. “Let’s flip that equation. Let’s work together to close those loopholes, end those incentives to ship jobs overseas and lower tax rates for businesses that create jobs here at home.”

When asked after the speech if they thought Obama’s address would inspire a new day on any particular issues in Congress, Titus and Horsford were mostly sober about their expectations.

But they were cautiously optimistic that Congress and the president could find some common ground.

“I sat on the Republican side,” Titus said of her vantage point during the speech. “Even when they [Republicans] weren’t standing, they were clapping on some of those issues.”

“I was pleased to see the agreement around the corporate tax reform discussion,” Horsford said. “If we focused on that and passed immigration reform, those would be two significant achievements in 2014.”

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