Rank-and-file congressional Republicans leaving the House chamber Tuesday night took a more measured tone in responding to President Barack Obama's State of the Union address, focusing on specific policy areas where they agreed with him, even as their leaders released boilerplate statements panning the speech.
Republican leaders and their aides repeatedly tried to tamp down expectations Tuesday, both for Obama and for their party's willingness to work with Democrats. But there were some expected areas of policy agreement leading into the address, and afterward it seemed as if the president had delivered in providing the GOP enough material to work with. It may seem small, but with a new Senate majority and an expanded House majority in 2015, Republicans face an increased political burden to show they can govern, work with the president and avoid politically catastrophic events, like future government shutdowns.
So on Tuesday, the path to agreement between the parties started with trade agreements, tax reform and, for some members, even parts of Obama's foreign policy platform, like restoring diplomatic relations with Cuba.
"It was good stuff. The president's doing the right thing there," said Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., of Obama's changes to America's Cuba policy.
Flake was also one of several members who pointed to potential trade agreements, opening up foreign markets to domestic producers, as a place where both parties can agree: "I think we can work with the president there — Republicans and Democrats. Didn't think much of the talk on tax hikes, knew it was coming, but it's not going to go very far."
Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, who is running for re-election in 2016, also pointed to trade agreements as a starting point for the two parties: "There are a number of Democrats, including the one I was sitting next to, Tim Kaine [of Virginia], who are already there and understand the importance of helping workers they represent be able to have that level playing field. The president stated it well — we have 95 percent of the consumers outside of our borders, we want to sell our services and our goods to them."
When asked by Yahoo News whether he found any points of agreement with Obama, Portman said he agrees with the general need to address tax reform and looks forward to hearing more details from the administration.
"On tax reform he did talk about the fact that workers are disadvantaged by the business tax system we have," Portman said. "He didn't go into great detail about that one, but my understanding is they're going to talk more about that the next couple of days, starting tomorrow morning with a speech by [Treasury Secretary] Jack Lew."
Of course, members such as Flake and Portman stand in contrast to House Republicans like Louie Gohmert of Texas or Steve King of Iowa, who immediately found a media audience in slamming the president's speech and hitting the tea party talking points that have elevated them to conservative prominence.
But that other members, less inclined to political flame-throwing but still typically critical of the president, were not as negative was noticeable. Obama had taken specific digs at the party, especially when he reminded his opponents that he won both his elections, and yet some Republicans did not feel inclined to focus on those moments. This is especially important and true on the Senate side, where new Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., needs a strong coalition of allies to move any legislation against the objections of conservative stalwarts like Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas.
Flake also talked about how Republicans can proceed on immigration, an issue that has divided the GOP and that Obama addressed Tuesday night.
"I still think we ought to move on it," Flake said. "In one sense, it's more difficult to work with the president now that he's gone kind of unilaterally on this, but in some sense he's made it easier, too.
"He's always said, 'I want a comprehensive bill.' We gave him that in the Senate, but the House didn't move," Flake continued. "Now the president has gone piecemeal, and that's what the House wanted to do all along. So I think that we can do a border bill, then maybe an interior enforcement bill, then maybe a guest worker bill, so in some way it may have gotten easier. We'll try another way. We need to do it, I agree with the president on that."