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New York Rep. Mike Lawler says president missed the mark in State of the Union

Republican U.S. Rep-elect Mike Lawler, who eked out a narrow win in New York's Hudson Valley, has said he'd work closely with all members of the U.S. House, including progressive Democrats.
Mary Altaffer
Republican U.S. Rep-elect Mike Lawler, who eked out a narrow win in New York's Hudson Valley, has said he'd work closely with all members of the U.S. House, including progressive Democrats.

President Joe Biden said the state of the union is strong in his address to a joint session of Congress Tuesday, and he called on lawmakers in the now divided Congress to work together. It was Biden’s first speech to Congress since Republicans took control of the chamber in November’s midterms. For reaction, WAMC’s Ian Pickus spoke with New York Congressman Mike Lawler, a Republican from the 17th district.

Policy and politics aside, this was your first State of the Union since taking office. What was your general reaction?

Oh, look, obviously from a personal perspective, and certainly a professional one, you know, it was a wonderful opportunity to be there, to listen to the president united states and be part of the process. You know, I've probably watched every State of the Union since I could remember. And so it was a great experience on a personal level to be there.

I was looking for you in the crowd as I do for the members of the delegation from here in the Northeast. I think I saw you standing and applauding when the President talked about Buy America programs, is that right?

That's correct. And certainly, you know, throughout the speech, there were opportunities where I stood up and applauded what the president was saying, especially on that, on the fentanyl crisis that we're dealing with, the mental health crisis, infrastructure and transportation issues. But frankly, you know, I think it was a missed opportunity by the president with a new Republican majority in the House. I think he could have come in there, frankly, with a little bit more of a conciliatory tone and focus in on how we work together going forward. He talked about bipartisanship. But there was very little substance on what it is that we can work on together. And frankly, he gave very short shrift to some of the major issues that we're dealing with as a nation, including the immigration crisis at our southern border, China and their threat as our greatest geopolitical foe, and the situation in Ukraine with the Russian invasion. So I think there was a lot of missed opportunities, frankly, given the stage and given the new Republican majority.

You mentioned a couple of things. But did you hear anything else from the president that you think you could work with him on?

Well, as I've said, from the very beginning, there's a lot that we can work on together, especially around issues of affordability, and public safety, and immigration, specifically securing our border, increasing Border Patrol, increasing the number of court personnel to hear asylum cases and coming up with a long-term bipartisan immigration plan. But one of the things that was really jarring was the exchange on the debt ceiling. I think it was extremely disingenuous when the president said that Republicans are going to cut Social Security and Medicare, when the speaker has been on the record saying that's not going to happen, when I have been on the record saying I will not vote for any legislation that guts those programs, and in fact, have said that we need to create a Blue Ribbon Commission to ensure their long-term sustainability and that we're fully funding them. And obviously, you saw the reaction by many of my colleagues to his comments there.

We need to have a good faith negotiation. On spending, we cannot continue to sustain $5 trillion in new spending over two years, it is just reckless. And we have to be serious about this. And if we're going to raise the debt ceiling, which we will, and we're gonna pay our debts previously incurred. But we need to have a long-term plan here. And if you look back at history, most of the major spending reforms have been tied to the debt ceiling. So this is nothing new. Joe Biden, as vice president of the United States, negotiated a debt ceiling increase in 2011 and in 2004, as a U.S. senator, voted against one. So, you know, I think it was extremely disingenuous his comments on that and frankly, not productive.

OK. If Social Security and Medicare are off the table, how do you get to an agreement between the different factions that were in the room last night?

Well, you have an actual budget process, which we haven't had in a very long time, and you have to go line by line, department by department and agency by agency. And every department needs to be able to justify their budget and justify the spending of these programs. You can't just continue to add spending for programs that, frankly, are no longer authorized for programs that may be obsolete or not working to the to the intention when they were first created. So you have to have a process here. And that's what we're talking about. We're talking about establishing a real budget process, and coming up with a long-term plan to put us on the path to fiscal solvency. And as was made clear last night, we're not talking about Social Security and Medicare. So any suggestion by the president or Democrats that that's what is being proposed is false and nothing more than hyperbole.

One more thing. Biden's speech was really seen as the unofficial kickoff for his 2024 reelection effort. He said repeatedly in the State of the Union ‘Let's finish the job,’ which can be read a number of ways. Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders of Arkansas delivered the rebuttal. What would you say is the GOP argument against a second Biden term?

Well, I think when you look at what we're dealing with, record inflation, skyrocketing energy costs, a porous southern border with not only a massive inflow of illegal immigration, but fentanyl pouring into our communities, killing tens of thousands of Americans a year, the crisis in Ukraine, where frankly, the president and the administration were late to the game by allowing Putin to advance on the border without providing the weaponry that was needed early on. And China. You know, I mean, they are our greatest geopolitical threat, and it's why the House Republican majority created the select committee on China. I think the president, frankly, has been very weak on taking on China. And we need to do more to protect our interests, economically, militarily, and from a national security perspective. And so I think the president, like I said, missed an opportunity, frankly, to forge a bipartisan path last night that really would give the American people a lot of hope about how we're going to proceed forward.

A lifelong resident of the Capital Region, Ian joined WAMC in late 2008 and became news director in 2013. He began working on Morning Edition and has produced The Capitol Connection, Congressional Corner, and several other WAMC programs. Ian can also be heard as the host of the WAMC News Podcast and on The Roundtable and various newscasts. Ian holds a BA in English and journalism and an MA in English, both from the University at Albany, where he has taught journalism since 2013.