Obama’s Capitol Hill Wish List: A Few Possibilities Peek Through in SOTU

Obama’s last State of the Union isn’t a long laundry list of proposals, but there’s a chance for action on criminal justice reform, and maybe more.

President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2016. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, Pool)

President Obama’s final state of the union speech self-consciously avoided descending into a detailed list of requests to a GOP Congress that shares few of his policy priorities.

“I want to go easy on the traditional list of proposals for the year ahead,” Obama said in the Capitol.

But the speech nonetheless hinted at a few areas where the lame-duck president and the Republican-controlled Congress could reach agreement. Obama offered a reminder of some major deals struck late last year on spending and taxes, and says more is possible.

“I hope we can work together this year on bipartisan priorities like criminal justice reform, and helping people who are battling prescription drug abuse. We just might surprise the cynics again,” Obama said, just before vowing not to lay out a long list of proposals.

Some proposals that would need Congress are highly unlikely. For instance, the speech calls for a higher minimum wage, but that won’t move on Capitol Hill.

But a huge trade victory hasn’t slipped away—yet. Obama’s not done with the tough sell of pushing Congress to approve the sweeping Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, even as Republicans warn that it won’t move until the lame duck session or perhaps 2017.

“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.

However, liberal activists warn that the provisions would dangerously undermine prosecutors’ ability to punish white collar crimes on financial fraud, environmental and worker protections, food safety and more.

The House Judiciary Committee included mens rea provisions in one of the various criminal justice reform bills it has already approved on a bipartisan basis.

Chairman Bob Goodlatte, at an event hosted by The Atlantic on Tuesday, said it’s a key part of any criminal justice package.

“I think that a deal that does not address this issue is not going anywhere in the House of Representatives,” Goodlatte said, calling it an “important part” of the discussion to prevent unfair criminal prosecutions.

“When you have hundreds of thousands of government regulations and now 5,000 separate, distinct federal criminal statutes, the ones that are founded in the common law, like murder and rape and robbery, there it’s presumed that people know -- you don’t have to show criminal intent there. But when have hundreds of thousands of government-created laws and regulations, there is nobody who knows that all those laws are. All of us are subject to violating laws [that] we don’t have any idea we are going to be violating,” he said.

But the Justice Department has pushed back on the mens rea language, arguing that it would allow defendants to escape prosecution by claiming ignorance of the law.

Jason Plautz contributed to this article