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Lawmakers Await Trump's First Speech on Capitol Hill

  • Michael Bowman

FILE - The Capitol in Washington is seen early Jan. 25, 2017.

Palpable anticipation and suspense prevailed Tuesday on Capitol Hill as President Donald Trump prepared to deliver his first speech to Congress, a body steeped in history and ritualized formality.

"We are all looking forward to what the president has to say tonight," said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican. "It's a big moment for him. More importantly, it's a big moment for our country. Americans are ready to move forward."

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer struck a far less optimistic tone.

"If past is prologue, the president will use populist rhetoric in his speech to hide what he is actually doing, which is helping the special interests and making it harder to stay in the middle class," the New York Democrat said.

Eager for details

Lawmakers of both parties told VOA they wanted details about Trump's economic agenda, from spending priorities to tax reform to health care.

"Most important, getting people back to work," said Representative Louie Gohmert, a Texas Republican. "I hope that will be a principal theme."

FILE - U.S. Representative Chris Van Hollen, a Maryland Democrat, wants to hear President Donald Trump's plans for creating good jobs.
FILE - U.S. Representative Chris Van Hollen, a Maryland Democrat, wants to hear President Donald Trump's plans for creating good jobs.

"Really, what the country needs is to put people to work in good-paying jobs and create the infrastructure we need to compete," said Democratic Senator Chris Van Hollen of Maryland.

Many Democrats, like Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois, also want the president to discuss his immigration policies.

"One of his executive orders expands the definition of crimes that would be the basis for deporting those who are undocumented to include traffic offenses and misdemeanors," Durbin said. "This isn't about taking dangerous people off the streets of America. It's breaking up families."

Foreign challenges

While much of the president's speech will focus on domestic matters, Senator Cory Gardner noted that foreign challenges abound.

"I think we need a clear understanding of what exactly we're going to do on North Korea and how we are going to counteract Kim Jong Un, the forgotten maniac," the Colorado Republican said.

Some Democrats attending the president's first speech to Congress skipped his inauguration January 20. As is tradition, lawmakers of both parties are expected to give Trump a loud ovation when he enters the House chamber. Many Democrats said they would applaud less for the man than for the office he holds.

FILE - Illinois Democratic Senator Dick Durbin pledges to be "respectful of the office of the presidency" during Tuesday speech by President Donald Trump.
FILE - Illinois Democratic Senator Dick Durbin pledges to be "respectful of the office of the presidency" during Tuesday speech by President Donald Trump.

"I disagree, clearly, with many of his policies," Durbin said. "But I will be respectful of the office of the presidency."

A speech to Congress is no magic bullet for getting a president's agenda enacted. But the address can have a political impact. As one Republican lawmaker told VOA, a successful Trump speech will rally and unite Republicans while providing an on-ramp for Democrats to engage constructively in at least some of the legislation Congress takes up in the months ahead.

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