By Peter Urban
Members of Arkansas' congressional delegation offered guarded praise tonight for President Obama's State of the Union address that touched on a breadth of policy issues for Congress to tackle in the coming year.
Much of Obama's hour-long address to a joint session and a worldwide television audience focused on the economy but also touched on investments in education, research, technology and transportation, as well as reducing the deficit and federal spending, cutting corporate taxes and imposing a five-year freeze on most discretionary federal spending.
"Some things he says I agree with, like reducing the corporate tax rate," Rep. Steve Womack, R-Rogers, said after the speech.
But, on other issues he disagreed vehemently, especially immigration reform.
"I heard amnesty," said Womack. "We're not going there."
Obama urged Congress to take up immigration reform, and implied that would include providing a path to citizenship for some illegal immigrants such as children of illegal immigrants who have grown up in the United States.
Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., offered a similar take on the speech. He applauded the president for promoting education but disagreed with his call for ending corporate oil subsidies and said he needs to go much farther than a freeze to straighten out the federal budget.
"We're at a tipping point now where we could wind up like Greece and Spain and those other countries," Boozman said, referring to the budget crisis that has hit some western European nations.
Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., said he was pleased Obama "expressed his commitment to improve the economy, reduce spending and reform the tax code." Those areas need desperate attention, Pryor said, and he looks forward to working with colleagues from both sides of the aisle to tackle those challenges.
Obama opened his address by recalling the Tucson shooting earlier this month that killed six people and injured more than a dozen others, including Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Gifford. The Arizona delegation sat together leaving a single chair empty in her honor.
Other lawmakers decided to sit with a member of the opposing party as a symbolic but important gesture of civility.
Womack sat with Rep. Mike Ross, D-Prescott. Pryor sat with Maine Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican. Rep. Rick Crawford, R-Jonesboro, sat with Utah Rep. Jim Matheson, a Democrat. Rep. Tim Griffin, R-Little Rock, had hoped to sit with Rep. Dan Boren, D-Okla., but by the time they reached the chamber there were no two seats remaining together.
Boozman stood in the back of the chamber without a seat. He arrived with Delaware Sen. Chris Coons, a Democrat. One seat was available, which Boozman gave to Coons. Still, the two spent about a half-hour together before the speech, an experience that Boozman said was worthwhile.
"We really did have a good talk and I got to know him on a personal level," Boozman said.
Pryor seemed to enjoy sitting next to Collins. The two exchanged a few comments through the speech and genuinely seemed to agree on a few of the points that Obama made during the address.
Both nodded in agreement when the president said that "the future is ours to win" and stood and applauded when he suggested the nation needed to "out innovate, out educate and out build the rest of the world."
Womack and Griffin said Obama's address touched on a lot of key points but the real proof will come in the details. For Griffin, he is looking particularly at how Obama plans to address the national debt.
"The harsh reality is that the debt is 60 percent of G.D.P. and a freeze here and a cut there is part of the solution but no where near enough," Griffin said. "How bold is his program going to be?"
Congress should get some of those details in a few weeks when Obama delivers his budget for the next fiscal year.