Legislators mixed on Obama address

WHEELING – President Barack Obama’s pronouncement during Tuesday’s State of the Union that he will sidestep Congress whenever possible to “expand opportunity for more American families” rubbed some lawmakers the wrong way, Democrat and Republican alike.

In particular, Obama’s plan to issue an executive order requiring federal contractors to pay their employees a $10.10 hourly minimum wage – almost 40 percent higher than the current $7.25 – drew criticism from area representatives who don’t necessarily oppose the idea, but believe the president is going about it the wrong way.

“It’s got a lot of people fired up, the way it came out,” said Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va. “And I’m one of them.”

Manchin said he supports raising the overall federal minimum wage, but warned Congress must be cautious of how quickly and to what level it does so. Though Obama’s proposed executive order is narrower in scope, Manchin believes such unilateral action will do little to foster cooperation among lawmakers.

Rep. David McKinley, R-Wheeling, also believes a minimum wage increase is “worthy of discussion,” but he expressed skepticism as to how small businesses already facing new mandates to offer employees health insurance coverage would cope. He, too, criticized Obama’s planned executive order regarding wages for federal contractors.

“I just think everyone needs to be reminded about our constitutional obligations and responsibilities. … It makes for a very different type of government than what we’ve been used to for the last 200 years,” McKinley said.

Both Manchin and McKinley pointed out what they view as a conspicuous absence from Obama’s address – any mention of the coal industry despite advocating an “all of the above” energy policy.

“Coal produces more energy for this country than any other source … but he didn’t even mention coal,” Manchin said. “That’s unconscionable – it really is.”

In general, reaction to President’s Barack Obama’s State of the Union address among area lawmakers was largely split along party lines, with Democrats praising the speech’s focus on reducing income inequality and Republicans dismissing the president’s words as recycled rhetoric that fails to justify America’s mounting national debt.

Sen. Rob Portman said he shares the goal Obama laid out in his address of making America a place where all can pursue their dreams, but disagrees with most of the president’s ideas on how to get there.

“We have tried the top down approach of more government, more regulations, more spending and record debt, and it hasn’t worked,” Portman, R-Ohio, said.

Portman did, however, point to Obama’s comments on tax reform, job skills training and developing an “all of the above” energy policy as a starting point for a divided Congress to begin cooperating.

“It will take his leadership, and if he provides that, I believe both sides can come together and find common ground,” he said.

Rep. Bill Johnson, R-Marietta, Ohio, said Obama’s pronouncement that unemployment is at its lowest rate in five years doesn’t tell the whole story.

“It’s clear the president is out of ideas on jobs. The president touts that the unemployment rate is down to 6.7 percent, but he fails to understand, or admit, that the unemployment rate has fallen because the labor force participation rate is the lowest it has been since 1978,” Johnson said. “Millions of people have simply given up looking for work. In fact, last month more Americans stopped looking for a job than found one. And that’s a tragedy.”

Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., said he was pleased by the president’s focus on reducing income inequality, and his comments on improving broadband Internet access for students as a way to invest in education.

“Much of the president’s State of the Union address focused on issues that are at the heart of my nearly 50-year career in public service, issues that are as important today as they were when I first came to West Virginia,” Rockefeller said. “We know that the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans take home nearly 20 percent of our nation’s total household income – representing a kind of inequality that is truly staggering and does a tremendous disservice to our children and our families. Addressing this inequality is at the heart of the many strides that have been made over the years.”

Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, did not issue a statement following Obama’s speech, but prior to the address praised the president’s announcement that he would issue an executive order raising the minimum wage for federal contractors to $10.10 per hour, and called on Congress to raise the minimum wage for all workers to the same level over a period of three years.