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Capitol Hill Is Divided Leading Up To President Trump's First SOTU Address


President Trump will deliver his first official State of the Union address tonight. Republicans like House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy say it should not be about politics.


KEVIN MCCARTHY: I don't think tonight is a night to play political games. I think tonight's a night to listen.

MCEVERS: But as NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis reports, politics is front and center on Capitol Hill today, where lawmakers are in a confrontational mood ahead of the speech. And Sue is with us now. Hey.


MCEVERS: So in recent years, you know, lawmakers used the State of the Union to make these grand gestures about bipartisanship. They'd choose a member of the opposing party and sit with them for the speech - sound like - sounds like it's not the same vibe this year.

DAVIS: Yeah. I think those days might be over.


DAVIS: Believe it or not, this is my 16th State of the Union address, so I can say this with some amount of authority.


DAVIS: I have never felt a mood quite like this in the building. The best way I can describe it is it just feels really antagonistic. A couple of examples of what I'm talking about - at least a dozen lawmakers - Democrats - are boycotting the address tonight. The Congressional Black Caucus held an event today saying part of the reason why they're not going is the president has just sown racial strife in this country. Another Democrat from Wisconsin, Mark Pocan, as his guest is bringing Randy Bryce, who is a Democratic candidate who is challenging House Speaker Paul Ryan for his seat this year in Congress - so kind of an overt political move at an official event.

And the president himself is contributing to that kind of political event around this. His campaign is fundraising off of the State of the Union tonight, soliciting donations. In turn - so they'll give - promote donors' names on a livestream of the event on their campaign website.

MCEVERS: Right. Well, I mean, what is it about this year that's making it so divided?

DAVIS: I think at the very top of this you have a president who is the most unpopular any president has been with the American public at this time in his presidency delivering his first State of the Union address. We're just coming off of a government shutdown that really soured the mood on Capitol Hill both between lawmakers - Republicans and Democrats - and with the White House.

And over top of all this, we have this immigration debate that has just really ramped up and inflamed the bases in both parties 'cause it is such an animating issue for them. One of the things Democrats are using the speech for tonight - they are bringing what they call DREAMers, these children that were brought here illegally who are now existing in this legal limbo that Congress is trying to resolve with legislation.

One Republican lawmaker, Arizona's Paul Gosar, put out a statement saying he had requested Capitol Police and the attorney general to order everyone to have their IDs checked upon coming into the Capitol and to arrest and deport, in his words, any illegal aliens trying to enter the Capitol tonight.


DAVIS: I asked the House speaker's office what they said to that. They said the speaker, quote, "clearly does not agree," and that will not be enforced.

MCEVERS: Wow. You know, the White House outlined the president's immigration proposal last week. I mean, is there any sense that despite what's happening tonight, there's going to be some progress, there's going to be some deal coming up?

DAVIS: If anything, it sounds like the talks have regressed. Two of the top Democrats in those talks - Dick Durbin of Illinois, Steny Hoyer of Maryland - said today that there's been no progress since they reopened the government. Democrats are uniformly opposed to some of the things the White House wants, including restrictions to family-based immigration. And conservatives increasingly are pushing back against the president's proposal or on anything that would create a path to the - path to citizenship for people.

The challenge the president has in this room tonight is he's got to make a case to the public, but he's also got to convince these lawmakers in the room that there's a bipartisan path forward. And I would say it's going to be a very tough crowd.

MCEVERS: NPR congressional correspondent Sue Davis, thank you.

DAVIS: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Susan Davis is a congressional correspondent for NPR and a co-host of the NPR Politics Podcast. She has covered Congress, elections, and national politics since 2002 for publications including USA TODAY, The Wall Street Journal, National Journal and Roll Call. She appears regularly on television and radio outlets to discuss congressional and national politics, and she is a contributor on PBS's Washington Week with Robert Costa. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Philadelphia native.