President Donald Trump claimed to seek bipartisan unity in his State of the Union address on Tuesday night, but some House Democrats were unconvinced of the sincerity of his overtures.
At several points during the 80-minute speech, Trump urged lawmakers of both parties to come together to serve the needs of the American people.
“Tonight, I call upon all of us to set aside our differences, to seek out common ground, and to summon the unity we need to deliver for the people we were elected to serve,” he said, recalling the solidarity both parties showed in the wake of the shooting at a Republican baseball practice last June.
Democrats said Wednesday that they are open to working with Trump, but they received a different message from the rest of the president’s words and his body language.
“In 80 minutes, he probably spent less than a minute total ever looking at the Democrats in that room,” said Rep. Lois Frankel, D-Fla.
She suggested Trump’s self-congratulatory tone overstated the accomplishments of his first year in office, and bipartisanship will likely be harder to achieve than he made it sound.
“If he patted his back any more times, he would have fallen over,” she said. “He’s a great showman. He did say some things I would love to work with him on if it was possible, but I thought a lot of it was, in his words, fake news.”
Trump specifically appealed to Democrats to find common ground on infrastructure and immigration.
“I am asking both parties to come together to give us the safe, fast, reliable, and modern infrastructure our economy needs and our people deserve,” he said.
Democrats reacted warmly to the idea of a massive bipartisan infrastructure package, but they are reticent to embrace Trump’s vision without more details on how the $1.5 trillion in investment he is seeking will be paid for.
Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney told Sinclair Wednesday that only $200 billion would be coming from the federal government, meaning private industry and state governments would have to pick up the rest of the tab.
“I think there should be broad consensus on an infrastructure bill to rebuild our roads, our bridges, our ports, our transit systems,” said Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I. “The federal government has to be a real partner with local and state governments in rebuilding America.”
College affordability and prescription drug prices are other areas of potential compromise Cicilline saw in Trump’s speech, but cooperation would require the president to translate the conciliatory tone he took at times on Tuesday night into actions in a way he has so far failed to do.
“There are a number of things we could work on if the president is serious about using the power of his office to bring us together rather than divide us,” he said.
With Congress still struggling to resolve the status of so-called Dreamers, young immigrants brought to the country illegally as children, Trump presented the four pillars of his immigration proposal as a fair compromise, but Democrats say the language he used and policies he offered were offensive and divisive.
“He proposed what I think is not only a cruel immigration policy but would really undermine the diversity of this country and undermine our values,” Frankel said.
She accused Trump of using the Dreamers as “ransom” to get the funding he demanded for an ineffective border wall.
Trump’s plan would provide a path to citizenship for nearly 2 million young immigrants, but it would also eliminate diversity visas and restrict family-based immigration preference to nuclear family members only—significant changes to the legal immigration system that Democrats have indicated could be deal-breakers.
Though he was not among those who booed the president’s immigration rhetoric in the chamber Tuesday, Cicilline criticized Trump’s use of the term “chain migration” to describe current family reunification policies, which allow immigrants to sponsor some extended family members for visas after becoming citizens.
“I’m not a booer, but I really condemn the use of the words ‘chain migration,’” he said.
Trump also indicated he would prioritize American citizens over the undocumented children because “Americans are dreamers too.” In the official Democratic response following the address, Rep. Joe Kennedy III, D-Mass., derided the “false choices” that this administration has created to needlessly pit Americans against each other.
“We are bombarded with one false choice after another,” Kennedy said. “Coal miners or single moms? Rural communities or inner cities? The coast or the heartland?... So here is the answer the Democrats offer tonight. We choose both.”
Part of the challenge for Trump is that Democrats see little reason to believe anything he says after a year in which fact-checkers at the Washington Post say he made well over 1,000 false or misleading statements.
“We’ve all learned you have to distinguish between what the president says and what he does,” Cicilline said.
Democrats also question whether they will be negotiating with the President Trump who read a carefully prepared speech from a teleprompter Tuesday or the President Trump who has been heckling “Cryin’ Chuck Schumer” on Twitter for the last week and a half.
“This president who has been tweeting divisive, ugly things to people for the past year called for unity,” Frankel said.
According to Republicans, Democrats who sat stone-faced through much of Trump’s speech—including some unambiguously positive economic data—are the ones forestalling any opportunities for bipartisanship.
“I cannot explain honestly the Democrats’ behavior last night,” said Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas. “When they sat on their hands and would not applaud record low unemployment for minorities, they could not applaud economic growth…I just cannot explain that behavior. It’s just extreme partisanship.”
Smith warned that a refusal to acknowledge economic realities could put the Democrats out of step with the public.
“They’ve got to recognize the good news,” he said. “They have to give the president a little bit of credit as well. I know the American people will.”
Rep. Tom Garrett, R-Va., said he was “disappointed” in Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s reactions to Trump’s calls for cooperation because there are major issues that will require some Democratic votes.
“These are things we ought to be able to agree on, so I would extend an open hand,” he said. “I think the president did last night.”
Despite these tensions and the heated words often coming from both sides, lawmakers say bipartisan cooperation is still important and at times essential.
“I think we have a responsibility to work together to solve the problems confronting Americans,” Cicilline said.