“Did they catch him in the cabin?” a Capitol Police officer asked, after the last senators had filed in.
“Nah, it’s on fire,” another answered.
“Did they find him?”
“No,” the second one answered again. “He killed an officer.”
The four cops, standing in a small rotunda some 15 yards from dozens of TV cameras, network anchors and Secret Service agents just before President Obama began his State of the Union address, were not alone in their fascination with the hunt for ex-LAPD officer Christopher Dorner, which was unfolding on live TV.
The Dorner manhunt was drawing almost as much attention at the Capitol on Tuesday night as the president. Congressmen, staffers, and police wondered at how the days-long California fugitive chase would end–most of them cut off from the news by virtue of their presence at the Capitol for Obama’s speech.
“They got him?” Rep. Eric Swalwell, a freshman Democrat from California asked a staffer as they huddled around a TV screen near a cable news network’s live-shot setup in Statuary Hall, an hour before Obama would speak. The screen showed aerial footage of a burning cabin in woods.
Swalwell explained his interest–”I was a prosecutor before I came here”–and admitted he’d never prosecuted any crimes this elaborate.
A group of staffers murmured about Dorner nearby: “Yeah, he shot another officer today,” a twentysomething in a green tie told his apparent colleagues.
Asked if attendees were more concerned with the manhunt than with Obama’s speech, newly elected GOP Sen. Jeff Flake, Ariz., suggested they probably were.
House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer had been following the story. “I assume he’s self-immolating,” Hoyer said, stopping in the doorway of an ante-room outside the House chamber. “It’s a shame–a man with a military, I don’t know his record–it’s a shame how many lives he’s taken.”
The buzz about Dorner dropped off after President Obama delivered his speech, but while attention had finally turned to federal policies, the speech seemed to change few attitudes in the Capitol. A SOTU speech brings everyone into the same room, but a partisan divide still reigned.
Freshman Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, impugned Obama’s motives for pursuing immigration reform. ”What he’s looking for is a political issue. His goal is not to get a bill passed, but to have an issue to campaign on in 2014 and 2016,” Cruz said. “The single biggest barrier to that getting passed is President Obama.”
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, seen by many as one of the Senate’s few remaining centrists, warned that Obama had taken a combative tone at times. “He said a couple things that if Congress didn’t act, he would take unilateral action,” Collins griped, suggesting that threats to the legislature wouldn’t help forge bipartisan agreement, even as a small group of Republicans and Democrats have finally come together on a big reform issue–immigration–as the Gang of Eight pushes a bipartisan plan.
Democrats, of course, liked the speech.
Beforehand, some Democrats had warned that if Republicans don’t agree to immigration reforms, they’ll go “extinct” as a party. Republican lawmakers like House GOP Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris-Rodgers, meanwhile, said they wanted to hear the president talk about jobs.
There were a few signs that the sharp divide has begun to thaw. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who gave an impassioned speech backing immigration the last time it came before Congress at President Bush’s behest, said he was “very pleased” by what Obama had to say about immigration on Tuesday. “I want to help the president,” he told ABC. Rep. Swalwell noted that a small group of Republicans and Democrats in the House are talking about areas of common ground on the issue.
But if the SOTU was a Rorschach test for partisan attitudes, there was more agreement on the California manhunt than on anything else.