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Interview with Senator Ted Cruz; Interview with Senator Mark Begich; Dangerous Snow and Ice Paralyze South; President Barack Obama's State of the Union Address

Aired January 28, 2014 - 00:00   ET


JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome to CNN's State of the Union post- game. I'm Jake Tapper.

If you did not see the president's speech, well, we'll get you up to speed over the next 30 minutes. If you did see it we've got in-depth analysis and some fiery reaction from one of the president's chief critics, Texas Republican Senator Ted Cruz. You won't want to miss that.

And of course you won't want to miss my exclusive coming up with President Obama. His very first interview following tonight's State of the Union address. I'll sit down with him exclusively in Wisconsin as he crisscrosses the country talking about the economic agenda he laid out this evening.

And then you can see our conversation Friday morning right here on CNN beginning on "NEW DAY" at 6:00 a.m. and you can watch the full interview on my show "THE LEAD" Friday at 4:00 p.m. Eastern.

Tonight began as tradition states with the House sergeant-at-arms introducing President Obama. The room holding nearly every powerful figure in our government. The president shaking hands and kissing cheeks on his way down the aisle to give his fifth State of the Union address.

The president telling Congress essentially there are two ways this year can go down. This year he presented as the easy way.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Let's make this a year of action. That's what most Americans want. For all of us in this chamber to focus on their lives, their hopes, their aspirations.


TAPPER: So that's the easy way. Bipartisan cooperation. Then there's the other way. The hard way as far as Congress is concerned.

The president looked out on the Republicans who kept many of the goals from his last State of the Union speech from happening and he basically threatened to rule by executive order in some ways.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) OBAMA: But America does not stand still, and neither will I. So wherever and whenever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families, that's what I'm going to do.


TAPPER: And not to skip to the end too quickly, we'll parse it all for you tonight. Don't worry. But I want to get to the most emotional moment of the evening when the president introduced the man sitting next to the first lady, Sergeant 1st Class Cory Remsburg, a remarkable soldier, who served 10 tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and nearly lost his life to a roadside bomb near Kandahar back in 2009.


OBAMA: Sergeant 1st Class Cory Remsburg never gives up and he does not quit. Cory.



TAPPER: At an event where applause was the ultimate thermometer it was heartening to see the entire room rise to applaud Sergeant 1st Class Cory Remsburg.

So how did the president's speech land with those watching at home? Well, pretty well, according to our CNN/ORC instant poll.

Now keep in mind that when the president's a Democrat more Democrats are likely to watch the State of the Union address. So Americans who we polled, who watched the speech, 44 percent reacted very positively, 32 percent reacted somewhat positively, only 22 percent reacted negatively.

Now let's compared that to his previous State of the Union addresses. Not as good as any years past. Certainly a drop from last year in the number of people who received the speech very positively.

When asked whether President Obama's plans will improve the economy, 59 percent said yes, 36 percent said no. That number also not as good as years past. Last year, as you can see, 65 percent said they believed his plans would improve the economy.

So how are Republicans responding to the president's speech?

And joining me now is Republican Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, a stalwart Tea Partier and an opponent of President Obama.

What did you hear tonight that you liked? Anything?

SEN. TED CRUZ (R), TEXAS: Well, there were a couple of things. One, he made mention to streamlining regulations. Now that has not been the pattern of the last five years of this administration. The pattern of this administration has been more and more job-killing regulations. But if he meant that he's open to streamlining regulations to help small businesses create jobs, that's something I could get excited about.

He also mentioned something he called my IRA. Now I'm not sure what that is, but he suggested it was a savings account that would enable people to save. I am a huge proponent of enabling and empowering people to save assets they control, they own, that are theirs. And so I don't know the details of the proposal, but I'll tell you, I'm --

TAPPER: You like those things.

CRUZ: I ran into Gene Sperling on the floor of the Senate afterwards and I said, I'm not sure of the details but I'd like to see them because depending on what it is it could be something we could work together on.

TAPPER: Now that we've accentuated the positive, let's discuss some of the negative. You have this new op-ed in the "Wall Street Journal," "The Imperial Presidency of Barack Obama." You accuse him of wantonly ignoring federal law. That's not quite accusing him of being a criminal but it comes a little bit close.

CRUZ: It's actually a different thing. It is we have never seen a president in the history of our country who when he disagrees with a law simply says he will not enforce it and unilaterally decrees changes to it. When he didn't agree with immigration laws or drug laws or welfare laws he said his administration will not enforce them anymore.

And with Obamacare. Over and over again he has directly contradicted the law, just changed it unilaterally. He granted an exemption for big business even though the text of the law says big business doesn't get an exemption. He granted an exemption for members of Congress even though the text of the law says they don't get an exemption.

And most strikingly, when you had over five million people lose their health insurance despite the president's promise if you like your plan you can keep your plan?

TAPPER: Right.

CRUZ: He simply held a press conference in which he instructed private health insurance companies, issue plans that are illegal under the text of Obamacare.

There is no precedent for any president of the United States instructing private citizens, go violate the law and for one year I won't prosecute you.

And the point I make in the op-ed is, this should not be a partisan issue. Even if you happen to agree with him on policy matters, the precedent of the president picking and choosing what laws to follow is a dangerous precedent. And you know, to be honest, I think a lot of folks in the media have given him a pass on this. There's going to come another president, a Republican president, and if you have this power for the president to say, I don't agree with this tax law, this environmental law, this labor law, so I'm just going to change it?


CRUZ: That threatens the liberty of every American. It ought to concern all of us, Republicans, Democrats, independents or libertarians. That much power in the president is dangerous.

TAPPER: Don't you -- isn't it true that the -- these five million plans that have been canceled, if that figure is correct, then I've heard that it's disputed, but those whose plans are no longer valid under Obamacare, isn't it true a lot of those Americans are going to have plans that are just different than the plans that are being -- that were canceled at the end of December 31st?

That they'll have new plans. So it's not five million or whatever the number is without insurance, it's five million that now have different insurance.

CRUZ: Well, number one, the promise the president made was if you like your health care plan you can keep your health care plan period. Those five million people liked their health care plan, and they discovered they were canceled. And that wasn't a side effect.

It was because the text of the law made their plans illegal because the Obama administration in writing the law determined they didn't like those plans that these individuals wanted. And so the promise they were made was deliberately repeatedly false.

But number two, yes, some of them have been able to get new plans. Many of them are paying higher premiums, have higher deductibles and have less covered, and they're also discovering, as are millions of Americans, that the promise if you like your doctor you can keep your doctor?

TAPPER: Right.

CRUZ: Isn't true as well.

TAPPER: If you think that he is wantonly ignoring federal law, if you think he is imperial, if you think that what he is doing or what he's about to do with these executive orders is outside the Constitution, what are you going to do about it?

CRUZ: Well, I can tell you, the courts have tried to hold him accountable. Since January of 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court has unanimously rejected the Obama administration's assertion of federal power nine separate times. But he is disregarding the law on an unprecedented way. And we need to have accountability because rule of law matters.

The same thing is true on Benghazi. On Benghazi he said he wanted to get to the bottom of it. And yet if he really means that he ought to support a joint select committee in Congress to find out what happened.

TAPPER: I will say that there has been an independent State Department investigation and a Senate Intelligence Committee did look into it. But we will talk again and we will continue to have this conversation, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas.

Thank you, sir.

CRUZ: Always a pleasure.

TAPPER: Thank you.

Coming up, certain Republicans have learned it's deadly to be seen as too friendly with the president. But certain Democrats may not want to be seen on the campaign trail with him, either. We'll ask one of them how president's speech affects his bid to keep his Senate seat.


TAPPER: Welcome back to CNN's State of the Union post-game. I'm Jake Tapper on a very snowy Washington, D.C. evening.

The president had plenty of lines tonight that brought his fellow Democrats to their feet, but supporting the president can be trickier for those Democrats who are facing re-election in red or purple states. There are no fewer than four Democratic senators running to keep their seats in states that are often thought of as Republican.

I'm joined by one of them right now. Imagine that. Alaska Senator Mark Begich. He's a Democrat that when you Google him the link to his official Web site says, "as independent as Alaska."

We're also joined by chief congressional correspondent Dana Bash.

So, Senator, thank you so much for joining us. When the president --

SEN. MARK BEGICH (D), ALASKA: First, we have snow here in Alaska.


BEGICH: We don't have snow it's 38 degrees.

TAPPER: Is that right?

BEGICH: It's warmer there than here.


BEGICH: So I feel at home right now.

TAPPER: Well, we're glad we could make you feel at home. We'll get some -- we'll get some dogs and have a little Iditarod later.


BEGICH: There you go.

TAPPER: When President Obama says that he is going to go it alone on some issues, and he talks about executive order.

BEGICH: Yes. TAPPER: How does that play in Alaska? How does that play for you as somebody who talks about trying to bridge the gap between the parties?

BEGICH: Well, I think -- and I've talked about this already in the past that I think you have to be very careful how far you extend those executive powers. Because I understand his desire to get things done and the frustration with Congress. But look at the last two months. A budget bill, appropriation bill. Actually if I ask the press about the appropriation bill they probably said it's not going to pass.

We passed it. Defense authorization. About to do a farm bill. I would encourage the president to work with us not just have a slew of executive orders. Because I think that's going to upset the balance and also create a lot of controversy not just from Republicans but some of us that are much more moderate and view this careful balance that we have a role here.

So I'll be anxious to see what these executive orders are. But if they go too far you'll clearly hear push back from me. There's no question about it.

BASH: And on that, your colleague Joe Manchin told reporters just a little while ago that -- on the issue of executive orders.

BEGICH: Executive orders.

BASH: Yes. It rubs a lot of people wrong. That rubs, I got to be honest, me, too. Does this rub you the wrong way?

BEGICH: It does, because, you know, I was a former mayor so I had a lot of executive power but I also served on the state assembly for 10 years so understand this careful balance. And I get his frustration but that also means you've got to come down and work with us. And I will tell you -- for example I saw some issues there, I heard it over and over again for the last five years on oil gas tax incentives. He wants to deal with that again. Eliminate them.

From Alaska we're not interested in that. That's been played for the last five years. Let's figure out if he wants to work on energy package let's figure out where those common ground is and let's move forward. But I think the executive order issues can rub a lot of us the wrong way.

And I know some people think it's just the Republicans, but I would tell you Joe Manchin, myself and some others are concerned about how far that will go.

BASH: So not helpful in Alaska for you. Not helpful --

BEGICH: Not helpful I think for the public in a sense that Alaskans or general public that we want to get -- I think if you ask anybody in the public, they want to get things done. But they also want to us do it together. If we're just going out and doing our own game plan I think people are very concerned. Alaska definitely.

TAPPER: Senator, Dana interviewed the Senate majority leader Harry Reid and talk to him about the prospect of Democrats who were up for election not in solidly blue Democratic areas maybe feeling uncomfortable about running with President Obama, physically with him.

Let's run some of that interview if we have it.


SEN. HARRY REID (D), MAJORITY LEADER: Barack Obama is personally a very popular guy. And people love this man. They love his family.

BASH: So you would encourage some of your most vulnerable Senate Democratic candidates to invite President Obama to appear with them?

REID: Yes, and they will.


TAPPER: I'm going to Wisconsin. I'll be interviewing President Obama there on Thursday. In an interview that's going to air Friday on CNN. I believe that the Democratic candidate who is running against the incumbent Republican governor Scott Walker, I believe she is not going to be appearing with President Obama in Wisconsin.

That also happened when President Obama went to North Carolina and your colleague Senator Scott Hagan did not appear with him.

If Senator Obama -- I'm sorry, President Obama wanted to go to Alaska to campaign with you, would you want him?

BEGICH: First I'll tell you when I ran and won was the same year he ran for his first election for the presidency. He lost Alaska by 22 points. I still won my election. If he wants to come up, I'm not really interested in campaigning. What I'd like him to do is see why his policies are wrong on Anwar for example. He opposes oil and gas development. I'd like to show him why it's the right move to move that forward to create jobs in oil and gas.

He talked about energy a little bit tonight. Well, we have it right there, a store house of energy. I'd like to be able to show him some of the issues that we've battled with the federal government on and try to get his policy change that directly affect us.

You know, we're down in southeast Alaska. We have huge capacity for timber, but we run into problem after problem with his administration trying to get just simple permits to move forward. So if he wants to come up there and learn about Alaska, bring it on.

BASH: I think --

BEGICH: I'll drag him around. I'll show him whatever he wants to see. But I want to convince him and show him that some of his policies are not the right direction. So I don't need him campaigning for me, I need him to change some of his policies.

TAPPER: Not a very traditional campaign appearance.


BASH: There's as much distance between you and the president now as between here and Alaska. I just want to say after that answer.

BEGICH: You know -- you know, we've had our differences as you know on oil and gas and arctic oil exploration. We've had some tug-of-war, we've had to really push him a long ways to get him to agree to move forward on what we think is an incredible oil and gas discovery opportunity. Thousands of jobs not only for Alaska.

But we battle all the time. I'd love to take him to Fairbanks and show him why the EPA is wrong in regards to air quality when we had no other alternative for fuel sources there.

TAPPER: Senator, is Obamacare going to hurt you?

BEGICH: You know --

TAPPER: We know you voted for Obamacare.

BEGICH: Actually I have to say when he mentioned tonight that he's challenging people for ideas, well, great. I've laid out a lot of fix-it ideas. I know he looked at the Republicans, but I've talked about a catastrophic plus plan, a copper plan --


TAPPER: Sure. A lot of Democrats are proposing fixes.

BEGICH: Right.

TAPPER: A lot of people like you.

BEGICH: I would love him -- yes. I love him -- I put one a year ago almost now on the business issues that we saw coming way before where we are today. So as he made that challenge, I want him to embrace some of my ideas because I think they will solve some of the problems. So will the health care issue, you know, people will use it against me. They will do that. Somehow everyone's the 60th vote in this whole world.

TAPPER: Right.

BEGICH: But at the end of the day what I hear from Alaskans is let's fix it where it's broken. We propose time after time ideas and we're going to continue to push those. So when he made that comment tonight, I know he kind of looked toward the Republicans. But there's a group of us moderates that are saying, hey, we have some ideas.



BASH: And Senator Reid told me today that he is open to ideas from people like you.

BEGICH: Absolutely.

BASH: He called them 2014ers.


BASH: You're one of them.


BASH: To make some constructive changes to Obamacare, are you -- are you -- what do you think you're going to actually be able to vote on?

BEGICH: Well, I'll tell you, this idea of the copper plan, which I think is basically a lower cost premium, more out of pocket expense that people wanted, but it lowers the cost. Something I've heard from Alaskans all across my state, or the business end where the tax credits that we currently are offering are not enough.

As a small business person I remember having this debate and saying this is not going to work. We need to raise the cap, we need to add more credit capacity, and you'll have more small businesses taking it.

I think these are very constructive ideas. We suggested extending out the employer mandate for two years, not one year, to give more time. The shop act isn't even operating right now. So you can't even get the 50 percent tax credits. So you bet, I'll be offering -- I have for the last year and a half -- ideas.

TAPPER: All right. Senator Mark Begich of Alaska, thank you so much. We appreciate your taking the time. And your constituents, I'm assuming, are up and they're watching right now so --

BEGICH: We're up at 8:00. And so thank you.

TAPPER: Yes, it's early. So we --

BEGICH: It's midnight here.

TAPPER: Stick around. We have another major story that we're following. Parts of The Deep South in total icy chaos. A desperate situation for commuters, travelers and thousands of kids who are stuck at school overnight. A live report from Atlanta next.


TAPPER: Welcome back to our special post-game coverage of the State of the Union address. That's what we're calling it. Post-game live from the capitol building. A snowy Washington, D.C. right now. A sight very unfamiliar to millions in the Deep South, a region paralyzed right now by what's been called in a generation winter storm.

Icy roads have wrecked hundreds of cars and stranded thousands of students who are stuck in their schools overnight. Hundreds of flights have also been canceled coming in and out of the nation's busiest airport in Atlanta, a place that hasn't gotten the plows out in three years.

Victor Blackwell is live in Atlanta for us with all the latest -- Victor.

VICTOR BLACKWELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Jake, there are still thousands of drivers stuck in traffic at this hour. The snow started before noon today. And this is what is left now. Let's take a look over here.

Thick ice on the roads here in Atlanta, just south of Atlanta in College Park. Now people have been waiting not just an hour or two, but up to seven or eight hours to get home today. Their question is, why was the city government -- why was the state government unprepared to respond to this when they released information before the storm started that they were ready?

Well, the governor, Nathan Deal, responded to some tough questions just moments ago.


GOV. NATHAN DEAL (D), GEORGIA: I wish there was something we could just wave a magic wand but that's not possible. We have to deal with reality. And I think all of these folks that are here are doing their very best.

(END VIDEO CLIP) BLACKWELL: And, Jake, tonight there are as you said several students here in Atlanta and in other school districts who are not only stuck in those schools, there are still 50 students stuck on buses. And school let out here in Atlanta early this afternoon -- Jake.

TAPPER: So, Victor, the students are going to -- they're forced to stay at schools overnight? They're going to sleep overnight? Are there enough supplies for them?

BLACKWELL: Well, Atlanta Public Schools says yes, there are enough supplies. They've issued the shelter in place, which means that if you haven't left by now you should not leave. So there are students and teachers in schools across the county. But I just checked the APS, Atlanta Public School's Twitter account.

And they said just 15 minutes before midnight that they were still trying to get food to students at at least one school. So a mad dash even on all of this ice to get supplies, to get rations to students who have been forced to stay at school overnight -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right, Victor Blackwell in Atlanta, thank you. And stay warm.

Time now for some final thoughts on the State of the Union and what comes next. Dana Bash is back with us.

Dana, the president hits the road now. As discussed now to sell his plan directly to the American people. What do you think the reaction will be in this building and other capitol buildings when he's on the road? Do you think the State of the Union address moved the dial at all?

BASH: I don't think so. You know, he certainly didn't propose anything huge that's going to change very, very much. I do think, though, that the tone that he set, the line which I thought was probably one of the most effective lines of the night where he talked about the speaker, he gave shout-out to the speaker as the son of a bartender and then sort of -- he related to him as somebody who's unlikely as a leader but just like he is as the son of a single mother.

But not to be too corny, just sitting in the chamber which I was able to do, it does remind you that despite the differences everybody comes together. Some of most conservative Republicans were here with their constituents that they invited with their families. And so, you know, we get jaded here watching these things but it is a reminder.

What do you think?

TAPPER: Well, I just wonder, one of the things that I thought was interesting is immigration reform is -- was the one big area where President Obama said this is something that the parties can work on together. And we know that House Speaker John Boehner wants to pass immigration reform.

But I have to say even though there was some polite applause from Boehner at the beginning of it, after Obama gave his push and I think Vice President Biden stood up, some other Democrats stood up, no response from Boehner. And I know that he wants immigration reform to pass. And I wonder if that's him thinking I don't want to be seen as supporting the president on immigration reform because it's a very careful dance he has to do here with -- especially the Tea Party and other conservative Republicans in his caucus.

BASH: Poking the hornet's nest is the way it's been described by people close to him.


BASH: But you bring up a good point, which is that you ask about how it's going to be received in the building. All of the House Republicans are going to be gone for the -- for the next several days because they're going to be off in Maryland at a retreat. And that is really where we're going to see the beginnings of whether or not they can actually find consensus within their party.

Never mind across the aisle.

TAPPER: Right.

BASH: Within their party and had to move some of these immigration reform bills. But also how they're going to approach the most immediate fight, which is raising the debt ceiling which is going to be in the next couple of weeks whether the speaker, as you said, publicly can just do this and move on or whether he's going to have to grapple with some of the conservatives in his caucus.

TAPPER: That's going to be a tough fight potentially, Dana. Thank you so much.

BASH: Thank you.

TAPPER: And you won't want to miss my exclusive interview with President Obama. It will be his very first interview following tonight's State of the Union address. I'll sit down with him in Wisconsin as he crisscrosses the country talking about the economic agenda he laid out tonight and other issues.

And then you can see our conversation Friday morning right here on CNN beginning on "NEW DAY" at 6:00 a.m. Eastern and you can watch the full interview on my show "THE LEAD" Friday at 4:00 p.m. Eastern.

That does it for me. I'm Jake Tapper. CNN's coverage of the State of the Union continues now.


JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: On the State of the Union stage, a focus on the middle class.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The cold hard fact is that even in the midst of recovery, too many Americans are working more than ever just to get by, let alone to get ahead.

KING: Lead Republican response -- is this part of an image makeover? A mother of three.

REP. CATHY MCMORRIS RODGERS (R), WASHINGTON: I'd like to share a more hopeful Republican vision. One that empowers you, not the government.

KING: Can the president move past a disastrous 2013 or will his 2014 wish list be blocked by election year politics?

The biggest stories sourced by the best reporters now.


KING: Welcome to CNN's continuing coverage of the State of the Union. I'm John King in Washington.

Tonight the president spoke for more than an hour. He was conciliatory on some issues, reaching out to Republicans on tax reform, on immigration. But a bit more confrontational, drawing some 2014 election lines on issues like equal pay, the minimum wage and other economic issues.

Here to talk it over with us, Audie Cornish from NPR, Jonathan Martin from the "New York Times", Maeve Reston of the "Los Angeles Times" and CNN's Peter Hamby.

Jonathan Martin, let me start with you. The president was optimistic. He was upbeat. It was a well-delivered speech. But did it change anything tomorrow, next day and next month, when it comes to his policy agenda and 2014 politics? JONATHAN MARTIN, THE NEW YORK TIMES: In terms of policy, he talked about immigration reform very, very little for a reason because he doesn't want to scare off Republicans in the House by pressing too much on the issue. Because he actually wants to have a bill to his desk to sign this year.

So on that issue, John, less is more.

Now on the issue of politics, it probably didn't change too much. Look, the most revealing takeaway that I've gotten from this speech all night came about seven minutes ago downstairs here in the green room where Senator Mark Begich from Alaska said that he in fact does want President Obama to come to his state this year. Not to campaign for him, he said, but to show him that his policies are wrong.

That is the night of the president's big speech in the midterm year, a sitting senator of his own party is saying that. It's remarkable.

PETER HAMBY, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER: And -- and the third -- and the third prominent Democratic candidate today to say that, Mark Udall from Colorado, said something similar earlier in the day.

KING: Wisconsin.

HAMBY: And Mary Burke in Wisconsin who's running for governor against Scott Walker -- her campaign has said she had scheduling issues so she can't appear with the president when he travels to Wisconsin this year.

MAEVE RESTON, LOS ANGELES TIMES: And of course that's been happening over and over again. In North Carolina, Kay Hagan didn't appear and Mary Landrieu has been putting as much distance as she can with -- from the president on Obamacare so--

KING: And Joe Manchin, the conservative Democrat -- moderate Democrat from West Virginia who many of those other Democrats look to. A form governor, they look to him. He said as well, he doesn't like these executive orders from the president.

The president thinks that's how he helps the Democrats, using executive power on issues like the minimum wage.

So what does it say when not only the Republicans who say it's an imperial presidency that's supposed to be Congress' turf, but when Democrats are saying no, Mr. President, within an hour or two of his big speech? What does that tell us?

AUDIE CORNISH, NPR: Well, it sort of dims the light. I mean, you had Obama -- President Obama doing upwards of 30 fundraisers last year for congressional Democrats. People were seeing that as a sign of like, hey, he's doing a little bit more trying to help guys out. And now just when you think he might be getting on a roll you have people like Begich coming out and saying no thanks, actually, you can still stay away so.

RESTON: At the same time, though, I mean, I think this was a very energetic speech. He was -- he was playful. He kind of poked fun at the Republicans on the Obamacare issue. And he's got a lot of problems right now with voters around the country in rebuilding that trust. And so in that regard, even though maybe the country is moving on looking forward to 2016, he may be able to rebuild some of that goodwill with tonight's speech.

KING: I agree on that point in the sense that, you know, presidents are competitors. To run for the presidency you've got to be a very competitive individual.

He's at 43 percent. Not the lowest point of his presidency but down pretty low. And yet he did rally. He came in with a lot of heart tonight, gave a pretty well-delivered speech. Whether you liked it or didn't like it.

You mentioned immigration, the potential. Let's listen to the president there because this is an issue where he has been so sharply critical of the Republicans Party in his campaigns and in the Oval Office. But as Jay Marr noted much more conciliatory. Let's listen.


OBAMA: Independent economists say immigration reform will grow our economy and shrink our deficits by almost $1 trillion in the next two decades. And for good reason. When people come here to fulfill their dreams, to study, invent, contribute to our culture, they make our country a more attractive place for businesses to locate and create jobs for everybody. So let's get immigration reform done this year.


KING: "Let's get immigration reform done this year."

Maeve Reston, to get it done this year the president likely would have to accept something from the House, the Republican House, short of what he wants. The president has said, I won't sign it unless it gives a path to citizenship.

MARTIN: Not legalization.

KING: Not legalization.

MARTIN: That's key.

KING: So the House would do -- what if the House does legal status and sends it to the president? And then Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid come to him and say, veto it, we want the issue to attract Latino voters in the campaign.

Does the president look at his legacy and say I'll take it, that's 80 percent, and then we'll fight for more, or does he take the politics?

RESTON: Well, I think that, you know, this issue, what we have to really consider is, is this really a 2014 issue or is it really a 2016 issue for everybody? I mean, I can see a scenario here where lawmakers on both sides kind of play around with the issue throughout the year and then bump it to 2015 before they pass anything. And that would probably work for both sides.

KING: Punting it down the road work for both sides? I mean, there's a risk here for Speaker Boehner who feels about as powerful as he ever has. He let the Tea Party guys out there. They shut down the government. They paid a price for it. Now Speaker Boehner says follow me, please. Can he do this?

HAMBY: I think one thing about this comprehensive immigration reform notion, for a lot of conservative Republicans it's not just comprehensive immigration reform, it's the whiff of any immigration reform that really riles the base.

Steve King put out -- the conservative congressman from western Iowa put out a YouTube video after tonight's speech saying we're not going to do anything on immigration. We don't trust the president on immigration. Clearly he's talking to his base. But I also e-mailed with the House Republican leadership aide after the speech saying, you know, what -- what's the vibe? Did Obama move the needle at all with immigration?

And the response I got was, he -- it's the Hippocratic Oath. He did no harm. So that goes to your point. Step back, let things happen behind the scenes. And I think that's what the president was trying to do.


MARTIN: The best thing the president can do on immigration reform is to really say nothing at all. Sort of let the House -- you know, GOP sort of work it out on their own. But I think they're going to pass something out of the House this year. And the question comes down to President Obama and also some of the Hispanic advocacy groups.

Are they going to cast a path to legal status but not citizenship as something either half a loaf as John put it or is it a poison pill? And that's really the question.

KING: In Ronald Reagan days, 80 percent was a pretty good deal. If president can get a guest worker program, can get the high tech visas, can get some of the other things that he wanted that are not related to the big issue that derails this every time, which is citizenship or status or nothing.

If he could get status, does he sign that for his legacy, or do the Democrats say, Mr. President don't give that to Republicans?

CORNISH: I think it's more interesting the tone that he took with it. This was his nod in a way to bipartisanship by staying out of the way. I mean, he spent only a paragraph of the speech on immigration which is supposed to be this very big initiative and it sort of speaks to the general tone of the speech to just, hey, guys, let's get a couple of base hits. Let's do some small things. I've got an idea. And then for every idea he put forward he would suggest something that Congress could pass, if it found it in its heart to do so. And I think that that sort of says a lot about lessons learned by this White House over the last few years.

HAMBY: And I think that makes it hard for him not to sign something like this, so I think it would be hard for him to have advocated for something like this even if it's small --

CORNISH: Well, whatever this is --


HAMBY: -- and gets to his desk.

MARTIN: He promised in his first term --

KING: Right. Right.

MARTIN: -- for immigration reform.

KING: And he's promised every year since.

RESTON: Right.


KING: But maybe to Maeve's point, maybe the president can say what he said tonight because he doesn't think they can get it done.

RESTON: Right.

KING: He thinks if he could go out to someone else --


RESTON: Well, I mean, maybe the House passes something and you know, everybody can talk about it through the elections. But then you wait until the lame duck session to really get something done.

KING: If immigration was one of the issues where he reached out to leave the door open for bipartisan compromise I think many people might have been surprised by what he said on health care. Yes, he said if you have ideas to fix it, I'll look at them. If the numbers add up, I'll sign them.

But health care is what sent him off the rails. What made 2013 such a disastrous year for the president. You could have expected him to say as little as possible in the speech tonight. But he decided to draw a pretty sharp political line.


OBAMA: Now, I do not expect to convince my Republican friends on the merits of this law.


But I know that the American people are not interested in refighting old battles. So again, if you have specific plans to cut costs, cover more people, increase choice, tell America what you'd do differently, let's see if the numbers add up. But let's not have another 40 something votes to repeal a law that's already helping millions of Americans like Amanda.


KING: Part of that was funny, part of that was in your face to the House Republicans who have tried 40 something times.

Is that effective or -- for the Democrats on the Senate side who actually want and some would say need to make changes to Obamacare to win their elections back home, is that helpful or not?

RESTON: I think that the best thing that these vulnerable Democrats can really do is to talk about something else entirely. And we've seen that happen, you know, in the Landrieu race, in North Carolina, and that's really what the president was trying to do tonight, was move on to the income inequality discussion, and sort of brush over all of the many problems that he's faced on Obamacare. And I think we'll just keep seeing those Democrats just soldier on to something else. HAMBY: Yes, I mean, Democrats think they can run on this. But Republicans are happy to have this fight.

RESTON: I mean, they want it. They relish it.

HAMBY: Yes, they want it. And the first -- the first test we might have of this is actually in March in just about six weeks. There's a special election in Florida and the Republican nominee --

MARTIN: In the bay area.

HAMBY: Right. Pinellas County, the Republican nominee there, David Jolly, put a statement tonight right after the speech saying, you know, I hope the president lives up to his word on jobs and improving the economy. And then he pivoted to Obamacare, you know, saying, Floridians are upset, you know, about rising premiums and getting kicked off their plans. This is again just a fight that Republicans really want to have.

KING: But how far is the president willing to go? You just heard in that Mark Begich interview with CNN you were talking about, where he said he doesn't want to campaign with the president. He wants to tell him how wrong he is.


KING: He said that he wants to propose some changes to Obamacare. Senator Landrieu, another vulnerable Democrats, says she does, too. Senator Pryor from Arkansas, another Democrat, says, hey, so do I. Never mind what the Republicans -- MARTIN: They're going to have to --

KING: How far does he go, though? This is his signature initiative.

MARTIN: Right. But the White House is going to have to give some kind of cover to those Democrats. Give them a wind of some kind. Say that -- you know, Mary bit my ear so many times that we're going to -- we're going to tweak this or that.

They have to do that, this White House. But I was actually e-mailing with a House Democrat tonight on the way here about the speech. They don't want to talk about health care at all. They want to focus on sort of two angles this year. A populist economic message that we heard to the tune of the president talking about minimum wage.

And then also what you can sort of call affinity politics. Women, Hispanics, African-Americans, focusing on issues that will sort of drive that -- you know, Democratic base. The combination of those two things -- you know, populism, affinity politics, if Democrats are going to sort of hold tight this year or even make some gains it's going to be because of that.

HAMBY: And one of the biggest applause last night from Democrats was about equal pay.

KING: Right.

MARTIN: Absolutely.

HAMBY: Also on Twitter, and Twitter is not representative of the American public --


HAMBY: Saying, that that "Mad Men" line was actually, you know, the number one most tweeted about.

KING: Right. Right. Very clever line. Yes.

MARTIN: The gender issue is the center piece to (INAUDIBLE).


CORNISH: But you see, this idea of him not -- not really approaching health care, he needed to have a moment where he could defend it without sounding defensive. You know, the last couple of months it's just been him hat in hand, oh, shucks, sorry, folks, the Web site doesn't work. And it was his moment to say something about it positively and not have the -- you know, the shadow of the last presidency.

KING: I believe a reflection that they think at the White House that the worst is behind them on this and it will get better.

RESTON: Absolutely.

KING: I'll say Republicans think otherwise. We'll see.

Stay with us. Republicans see this year's midterm election as a landscape of huge opportunity. But can they avoid the pitfalls -- we know they're capable of those -- and take control of the United States Senate? That's next.




SEN. MARK UDALL (D), COLORADO: We'll see what the president's schedule is, we'll see what my schedule is. But Coloradoans are going to re-elect me based on my record, not the president's record, not what the president's done but what I've done and how I've stood up for Colorado. That's the case I'm going to make to Colorado.

BASH: Wow. One more chance. You're not going to say yes or no, are you?

UDALL: Let's see what the schedule allows.


KING: Welcome back. A very telling interview there with the Democratic Senator Mark Udall refusing to say if he'd welcome President Obama to join him on the campaign trail this year. In 2014 most expect Republicans to keep their House majority. The big battle is for the United States Senate.

Let's take a look at the state of play. Here's the current state of play. 55 Democrats if you count the two independents who caucus with the Democrats, 45 Republicans. Right? That's it. In 2014, three dozen seats are up. Both Democrats and Republicans with seats to defend but this is what we view. You can look at these races here as the most competitive races.

Now Republicans need a net gain of six to get control of the Senate. In West Virginia, veteran Democratic Senator Rockefeller is retiring, Republicans think that one is in the bag. In South Dakota, Democratic Senator Tim Johnson retiring. Republicans think that one is in the bag.

In Montana, Democratic Senator Max Baucus, he'll be ambassador to China. He is retiring. Democrats -- Republicans, I'm sorry, think that one is in the bag. That would get them to 46. Then what happens there? Well, Arkansas. Senator Pryor very vulnerable, a Democrat. He won't welcome President Obama. Republicans think that's a great opportunity.

They think in Alaska, Mark Begich just said on CNN a short time ago, no thanks, Mr. President, I don't need your help because you're wrong on so many issues. Republicans think they have a really good chance to get that one. That gets you up to 48. Then you look at the map from here, North Carolina, that's a state Kay Hagan, her first re- election, tough race there.

I won't switch it but we'll leave that one. Louisiana another one, that's a Republican opportunity. They also think they could have chances in Michigan and in Iowa where you have retiring Democratic senators. So the map a tough one. A tough one. Also perhaps New Hampshire. A tough one. But Republicans do think they have a chance to get to 50.

So let's continue our conversation with Audie Cornish of NPR, Jonathan Martin of the "New York Times," Peter Hamby of CNN and Maeve Reston of the "L.A. Times."

Republicans think they have a chance, but they have to be almost perfect.

MARTIN: There's very little margin for error, John. I mean, you're talking about some of these states, you know, Montana comes to mind. Yes, it's a red state but keep in mind, John Tester has won that state twice for Democrats, Democratic senator. There is a play for Democrats to win there. Max Baucus won it for 35 years. There is a way for Democrats --

KING: In this year with this climate?

MARTIN: But that's going to be the challenge for Democrats. In some of these red states where they have won in recent years can they pull it off in this kind of year? Because in 2010 where you had what was a really bad environment for Democrats, those kind of states they didn't win in. And frankly, didn't even come close.

And Mark Pryor type survive in Arkansas, a golden last name. Somebody who culturally is a good fit for that state in an environment where his background, his last name, his profile, might not mean as much as --


KING: They could actually -- could it actually hurt him this year where people are so mad at politicians, the golden last names may be hurt more than the help?

HAMBY: Well, yes, Republicans have an edge across the board to your point just now. Mitch McConnell in Kentucky. Right? That state should favor a Republican. But --

MARTIN: His numbers are terrible.

HAMBY: His numbers are terrible. He's completely associated with Washington. You know -- and you know he's running against a pretty good candidate profile-wise. Again they have the advantage across the board. But so many Senate races always come down to, like, little kinds of quirks.

Look at Iowa, there are so many Republicans in that field. If no candidate gets over 35 percent in a Republican primary it goes to a convention. Guess what? Republicans can nominate an unelectable conservative against Bruce Bailey.

And look at Virginia. I mean, Mark Warner is -- you know, this is -- maybe Republicans favor, Mark Warner has really good poll numbers. But you know, I happen to think that will be a little more competitive than a lot of people did.

RESTON: We're also talking about a lot of -- a number of untested candidates here. And we've seen that, you know, in California, in 2010 you had Meg Whitman put forward and Carly Fiorina, and they ended up really kind of stumbling once they actually got out on the campaign trail.

KING: Right.

RESTON: So while Republicans might be talking about pickups at this point in Michigan or in Minnesota, that's a really tough call.

KING: It's one of those funny rules. Even when people are anti- politician in most elections the best politician wins. It's a funny thing.

Now we -- look, the Republicans shut down the government. And after the government shutdown there was actually a brief period in Washington where people thought the Democrats might even be able to get the House back. Republican approval rating is tanked. That has leveled off largely because of the Obamacare rollout.

But is that the Democrats' best hope that the Republicans will somehow screw up again?

CORNISH: Well, there is a vibe of kind of like Indiana Jones epic door slide. Like, let's just try and get something in before the window closes of midterm elections. And obviously it's not going that well. You know, the seats that you were talking about, you know, president's job approval ratings are under 35 percent in Arkansas, in Montana, I mean these are places where there's not going to be any kind of tail so I think that --

KING: Just the opposite.

CORNISH: Yes. Just the opposite.

RESTON: Right.

HAMBY: And if you look at -- if you go back to 2010 and 2012, there's some evidence to the president's job approval being tied to the Democratic vote share in some of these states.

KING: Right.

HAMBY: So if president is at 43 and 40 percent, I mean that's --


CORNISH: Especially in North Carolina.


KING: Midterm election year. That is the gold standard. The president's approval rating in a midterm is the gold standard. With the economy -- even gets no credit for the economy.

Let's just -- let's listen to a bit tonight. We heard from the president. Then you have the traditional Republican response. Since the Tea Party boom, we've had two Republican responses. Tonight we had three or four.

That's one of the questions. First let's listen to a bit of the Republican reaction.


RODGERS: The president talks a lot about income inequality. But the real gap we face today is one of opportunity in equality.

SEN. MIKE LEE (R), UTAH: Obamacare, all by itself, is an inequality Godzilla.

SEN. RAND PAUL (R), KENTUCKY: Government spending doesn't work. It doesn't create jobs. Only the democracy of the marketplace can find those capable of creating jobs.


KING: Does the fissures in the Republican Party, Jonathan -- you have the Tea Party, you have the libertarians like Rand Paul, does that hurt or have they figured out enough that even though they disagree on some issues to find common ground so they don't mess what up should be a good year?

MARTIN: It's still a problem. And in fact, if you talk to Senate -- you know, Democrats which I have in the recent weeks, much of their strategy is banked on Republican primaries causing problems. I mean, it's remarkable to the degree which how focused they are on the other party's primaries.

You know, they really think in Georgia, for example, that the ultimate nominee for the GOP could be a really flawed candidate and that Michelle Nunn could find her way in there. They also think that there are other races -- I mean, we're talking about Mississippi, for example, that have long-time incumbent, Thad Cochran, loses his party to a Tea Party candidate they would have a shot there if they could get a decent looking Democrat in the race.

So it's striking, Peter, how much talking to Dems these days on the hill that they are consumed with GOP primaries.

HAMBY: And they pounce, they absolutely pounce when any Republican says something, you know --

MARTIN: Could play into this.

HAMBY: Vaguely out of the mainstream or seriously out of the mainstream. I mean, last week the Republican National Committee adopted a resolution urging their candidates to talk about abortion, for example, and terms friendly to them using poll numbers, you know, where the public sort of supports some abortion restrictions. And then, you know, the Republican National Committee was very happy about this.

And the next day they have Mike Huckabee come speak to the RNC and he talks about women's libidos.

MARTIN: Right.


HAMBY: And there was just like a giant women Republican face palm.

RESTON: I mean, this is why you all say which you have the Republican Party itself seems sort of deadlocked on immigration. I mean, you can't -- so many of the candidates are worried about their primary challengers that they're scared to go out on a limb and really try to advance.

KING: The party out of power has these issues. We're about to see the -- we have to see the beginnings of the Democrats going through this actually where you see the senators starting to talk about this when you don't -- when you don't have these strong presidential model.

Stay with us next. Our panelists, they empty their reporters' notebooks. That's why we bring them in here. The best reporters in the business.

Stay with us for the stories that will be making headlines in the days ahead.


KING: Welcome back to our continuing coverage of the president's State of the Union. Good morning if you're on the East Coast.

Let's have our panel empty their notebooks. What will be making political headlines in the week ahead.

Audie, let's start with you.

CORNISH: This idea, the last line from the speech, workplace policies that belong in an episode of "Mad Men," bringing back that idea of more liberal leave, this is something from the American Jobs Act that maybe want to run to my hard drive do a search, blow the dust off that 2011 document and see if we're going to be seeing more of it in the coming weeks.

KING: Right. We'll watch that. Jon?

MARTIN: In the previous segment, John, you were going through some of those Senate races. Two that you didn't mention. Minnesota and Oregon. Talking to Republicans these days, they're feeling very bullish. And they think if this year turns out to be what it could be for them they could put some states on to the map that aren't being talked about right now. Al Franken in Minnesota, Jeff Merkley in Oregon, two freshmen Democratic senators potentially in a really good year -- you know, the GOP could be vulnerable.

KING: Trying to expand the map.

HAMBY: Republicans want to have a convention in 2016 in June. There are a number of cities competing for it, including Charlotte, Columbus, Phoenix, Denver, and Las Vegas. Some members of the committees bidding for the convention that live in cities that have NBA and NHL franchises -- Phoenix, Denver, Charlotte -- are concerned that that might kind of edge them out because in June you're going to have playoff time. And these stadiums and these hotels are going to be booked which could favor Las Vegas.

RESTON: Such a fun fight.


MARTIN: Sports.

KING: Why don't we just agree the Boston teams are in the playoffs that year and many other cities can have their --

RESTON: Yes. Exactly. Exactly. Well, we talked a lot about Latinos tonight and the immigration push. I think what's been really fascinating about the Obamacare debate is the fact that many Latinos have not been signing up. That's really been a huge problem for the White House.

Immigration a little uncertain. So what does that mean about where Latinos go in 2014 and 2016? I think that's something we need to dig into over the next couple of weeks here.

KING: One of the biggest dynamics in American politics. In 2014 they may stay home.

Here's one from me. We didn't talk about the New Hampshire Senate race. Either Republicans are leaning on the former Massachusetts senator, Scott Brown, to run, I spoke to two people who spent time with the former senator in the past week. They say he very much wants to run but both also described him as 50-50, meaning there's something making him hesitant.

We'll try to figure what that is in the days and weeks ahead.

I want to thank Audie Cornish, Jonathan Martin, Peter Hamby, Maeve Reston.

I'm John King in Washington. Thanks for staying with us to the early morning. CNN's State of the Union coverage continues right now.