Supreme Court justice shakes head as Obama scolds high court over campaign finance decision

By Laurie Kellman, AP
Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Justice looks askance as Obama criticizes court

WASHINGTON — The man in the House chamber openly disagreeing with President Barack Obama as he spoke to Congress wasn’t an over-the-top Republican or a seething Democrat. He was a Supreme Court justice, Samuel Alito.

Obama had taken the unusual step of scolding the high court in his State of the Union address Wednesday. “With all due deference to the separation of powers,” he began, the court last week “reversed a century of law that I believe will open the floodgates for special interests — including foreign corporations — to spend without limit in our elections.”

Alito made a dismissive face, shook his head repeatedly and appeared to mouth the words “not true” or possibly “simply not true.”

A reliable conservative appointed to the court by Republican President George W. Bush, Alito was in the majority in the 5-4 ruling.

Senate Democratic leaders sitting immediately behind Alito and other members of the high court rose and clapped loudly in their direction, with Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., leaning slightly forward with the most enthusiastic applause.

The court did upend a 100-year trend in law to impose greater limitations on corporate political activity. Specifically, the court said corporations and unions could spend freely from their treasuries to run political ads for or against specific candidates.

In a dissent, Justice John Paul Stevens said the court’s majority “would appear to afford the same protection to multinational corporations controlled by foreigners as to individual Americans.”

Obama said corporations can “spend without limit in our elections.” However, corporations and unions are still prohibited from contributing directly to politicians.

Alito’s head-shaking, though only two rows directly in front of Obama, wasn’t the “You lie!” moment that brought the president’s last speech to Congress to a screeching halt. In fact, Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., who shouted it, was stonefaced throughout Obama’s latest speech, even rising a few times to applaud.

While Obama spoke to a Congress dominated by Democrats, the smiles and the applause that interrupted the president dozens of times during his 69-minute address belied the Democrat-vs.-Democrat anger that has been roiling the ranks of the party’s lawmakers.

For most of them, no issue is more pressing than getting re-elected in November. And it’s not clear that pursuing Obama’s priorities will help them achieve theirs. Obama acknowledged that two unpopular initiatives, the bailout of banks and the stalled health care overhaul, put the heat on Democratic incumbents.

Obama’s upbeat manner, his promise to put job creation first and his challenges to the Senate to get moving on key bills elated many Democrats. The most awkward moment came during Obama’s discussion of a discretionary spending freeze that is anathema to some progressives and which the Senate blocked this week.

Still, Democrats applauded him more than 80 times.

“He spanked the Senate five times,” said Rep. Anthony Weiner, D-N.Y. He invoked former House Speaker Sam Rayburn to make the point: Some Democrats pose a threat to others.

“Republicans are our opposition. The Senate’s our enemy,” Weiner said.

In personal and profane terms, House and Senate Democrats have huddled behind closed doors to list recent debacles: The stunner in Massachusetts that cost the Democrats a Senate seat. The slow-motion collapse of health care talks. A government bailout of Wall Street while unemployment sits in double-digits.

“It just stinks to the high heaven what happened here,” Rep. Stephen Lynch, D-Mass., railed earlier in the day at Obama’s treasury secretary, Timothy Geithner.

Lynch was talking about the bailout, but the statement could well describe the Democrats’ attitude about Obama’s performance and the toll it’s taken on their political standing.

One powerful House Democrat released a scathing statement about the White House before Obama had finished speaking.

“Somewhere along the line, the White House lost its way,” said Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Mo., chairman of the Armed Services Committee. “Instead of focusing on solutions to help America’s families wade through the wreckage of the worst economic crisis since the 1930s, Washington has wasted valuable time wrestling with partisan politics in an effort to rush through drastic reforms that do not directly address our most immediate needs.”

Skelton added: “The president’s address has lent us all hope — hope that the administration is finally heeding our concerns. It’s about time.”

Republicans were making a studied effort to stay out of the way and avoid another “You lie” moment. The House’s three top Republican leaders — Reps. John Boehner of Ohio, Eric Cantor of Virginia and Mike Pence of Indiana — all lectured their troops before the address that the president should be treated with respect.

Associated Press writer Jim Kuhnhenn contributed to this report.

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