WASHINGTON — Rep. Jeff Landry knew not to yell at President Barack Obama during his jobs address Thursday night to Congress. That move made Rep. Joe Wilson famous a couple of years ago, and not necessarily for the better.
Instead, Republican leaders urged their members to show up, keep an open mind and be polite — voters were anxious and Congress' bickering had angered large majorities of them.
So Landry, a Louisiana Republican, instead printed out a small white sign to raise when Obama mentioned how, exactly, he planned to put more Americans to work.
"Drilling(equals)jobs," it read in big black letters. Seated two rows behind the well-mannered Wilson, R-S.C., Landry held it up when Obama acknowledged that Republicans might have ideas different from his $447 billion jobs package.
It was only a modest departure from decorum, but a sure signal that more than policy disagreements remain between Obama and congressional Republicans whose standoff over raising the debt ceiling last month brought the country to the brink of default. The markets and recession-weary Americans didn't appreciate the suspense. The nation's credit rating suffered for the bickering, and Congress' favorable ratings dropped to around 12 percent.
Aware that some conservatives planned to boycott Thursday's speech, Republican leaders urged lawmakers returning to Washington this week to be cool. They said that they were listening for ideas they could agree upon to put some of the 14 million unemployed Americans back to work. And they declined to issue a formal, televised response.
Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, a Republican presidential candidate, didn't make it to the speech, blaming floods in the rain-ravaged capital. But she did arrive in time to convene her own news conference afterward, where she cast the president's speech as misguided and political.
"Our patience for speeches, gimmicks and excuses has run out," she said.
In the House chamber earlier in the evening, there was little joy in the face-to-face meeting between Obama and lawmakers. The White House and House Republicans had sparred even over the date of the address: Obama had proposed Wednesday, at the exact time of the Republican presidential candidates' televised debate in California. House Speaker John Boehner proposed Thursday instead. The two agreed on 7 p.m., more than an hour before the kickoff of the National Football League season.
"I've encouraged my colleagues to come tonight and to listen to the president," Boehner said Thursday morning. "We ought to be respectful, and we ought to welcome him."
In the evening, the speaker and the president greeted each other respectfully, but not joyfully.
Democrats smarting from Obama's recent criticisms of Congress were stingy with the whoops, hollers and sustained standing ovations that peppered Obama's previous addresses to Congress.
Republicans openly chuckled when Obama insisted that his plan to tax rich people more "isn't political grandstanding."
Some Republican lawmakers skipped the speech entirely, making it clear to reporters they felt they had more important business to attend.
Rep. Paul Broun, R-Ga., tweeted a live town hall from his office, said his spokeswoman, Meredith Griffanti. And Rep. Joe Walsh, R-Ill., was home in the Chicago suburbs hosting a meeting with small business owners. South Carolina Republican Sen. Jim DeMint, who calls himself "Sen. Tea Party," had planned to skip town before the speech, citing a meeting in Charleston, S.C., with officials and employees of the Boeing Co. Sen. David Vitter, R-La., planned to listen carefully from home, where he wanted to watch the New Orleans Saints play the Green Bay Packers.
But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., scheduled a vote Thursday night immediately after Obama's speech that kept DeMint, Vitter and the rest of the Senate in Washington.
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