Minnesota delegation generally positive on Obama’s State of the Union speech

WASHINGTON – Minnesota’s members of Congress say they want to work with President Obama, even if they disagree with policies outlined in his State of the Union address.

One of Obama’s harshest critics in Minnesota’s delegation, Republican U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, said while the speech didn’t break new ground, she hoped his call for renewing the nation’s infrastructure would mean federal funds to help widen I-94 in her district.

“Where I think maybe we can work together for the good of the people in Minnesota was on infrastructure projects,” said Bachmann.

DFL U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar noticed a shift in tone among fellow members of Congress compared to last year.

“I didn’t think you saw the negativity in the chamber. It’s post-election, it’s time to move on and get working and there were a lot of positive moments where everyone stood together,” said Klobuchar.

Some, such as DFL U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan, thought Obama made a rhetorical slam dunk.

“I just thought it was a tremendous, just a tremendous, outstanding speech. Maybe the best I’ve ever heard on a State of the Union speech,” said Nolan, who served three terms in Congress between 1975 and 1981 and was in the House chamber for former President Jimmy Carter’s final State of the Union.

Obama’s proposal to tackle the looming automatic budget cuts that take effect March 1st didn’t strike long-serving DFL Congressman Collin Peterson as feasible. The plan involves overhauling how Medicare pays medical providers to reduce costs. It also cuts tax breaks.

“I don’t know, I mean he can say this is paid for but I don’t see how,” said Peterson. “I was sitting with the Republicans – this was not going over. So I don’t see how you get anyplace.”

One issue on the minds of many lawmakers was gun control. Obama brought Democrats to their feet after he invoked the names of victims of gun violence and said “They deserve a vote.”

Echoing Obama, St. Paul Democrat Betty McCollum said, “We deserve a vote on it, we need to find the common ground on it, I’m not going to give up.”

“I was really honored that he demonstrated real commitment to making change because the people who don’t want change are committed but the President’s also committed,” said DFL U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, who invited 17-year-old Sami Rahamim as his guest.

Rahamim’s father was killed by a gunman last year during a workplace mass shooting in Minneapolis.

Republican Congressman Erik Paulsen brought along Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek as his guest to the speech. Stanek has been part of a group of law enforcement officials consulted by the White House as it developed its gun proposals.

Paulsen has been endorsed by the National Rifle Association but his suburban district also voted for President Obama in the last election. Paulsen said he could possibly support some of the administration’s ideas around tightening background checks for gun purchases.

“Making sure we listen to practitioners and understanding that there are holes in the current background system, making sure that accessibility for those who are mentally ill and unstable and aren’t going to have access to guns is probably the top priority we should be focusing on,” said Paulsen.

Obama’s proposal to create universal access to preschool education across the country found strong support among the delegation’s Democrats.

“The fact of the matter is this isn’t just about a feel-good to get kids into playing with blocks or something, this is about getting kids ready to learn, ready to get into kindergarten,” said U.S. Rep. Tim Walz, a former teacher.

But Republicans, especially Bachmann, were leery about the plan’s potential costs and impact on local control of schools.

“I don’t believe in the federal government coming into Minnesota, taking our state money and telling our teachers what to teach, how to teach, what to test,” said Bachmann.

Foreign policy issues didn’t come up much in the delegation’s response to the address. But DFL U.S. Sen. Al Franken noticed one point the president made. Franken signed a bipartisan letter asking Obama to reveal more about the legal basis for attacks made with unmanned drones. He was relieved to hear Obama say he would keep Congress better informed about secret counter-terrorism operations.

“I was glad to hear him talk about that,” said Franken.