“It cuts 18,000 taxes on products Made in America, and supports more good jobs. With TPP, China doesn’t set the rules in that region, we do. You want to show our strength in this century? Approve this agreement. Give us the tools to enforce it,” Obama said.
Elsewhere, Obama called on Congress to boost funding to eradicate malaria, which could have appeal across the aisle. “Right now, we are on track to end the scourge of HIV/AIDS, and we have the capacity to accomplish the same thing with malaria — something I’ll be pushing this Congress to fund this year,” he said.
He also extended an olive branch to House Speaker Paul Ryan, who has been outspoken on wanting his party to have a more proactive agenda on poverty. Obama sees more chances to use the tax code.
“I also know Speaker Ryan has talked about his interest in tackling poverty. America is about giving everybody willing to work a hand up, and I’d welcome a serious discussion about strategies we can all support, like expanding tax cuts for low-income workers without kids,” he said.
Criminal justice reform, while only mentioned briefly in the speech, could represent one of the best chances for a big bipartisan deal with Congress this year.
Obama’s shout-out to criminal justice reform arrives amid bipartisan hopes of striking a deal on a package of bills that overhaul sentencing and prison policy.
Major pieces of the bills would ease tough mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses, and shortening sentences for prisoners who take part in programs to cut risk of reoffending.
Sen. John Thune, a member of the GOP leadership team, told reporters in the Capitol earlier on Tuesday that he’s sees a real chance for action.
“There is a lot of interest in it on both sides and there frankly quite a bit agreement on both sides,” Thune said, and speculated that the chances of a criminal justice package reaching the Senate floor this year are “better than 50-50.”
“In terms of major legislative initiatives where there is bipartisan support, there probably aren’t going to be a whole lot of them, but I think this is one,” he said. Sen. John Cornyn, the majority whip, is a key sponsor of legislation that cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee last fall. However, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has not announced plans to bring a package to the floor.
And there are political hurdles despite the bipartisan interest. Some lawmakers, led by GOP members, want to expand requirements that prosecutors show that defendants knew, or had reason to believe, that their actions were illegal.
Advocates of provisions on “mens rea” (which is Latin for “guilty mind”), who include some conservative activists, say the nation’s large array of criminal laws mean that companies and people can easily run afoul of the law without any criminal intent.