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Arizona lawmakers find some good, some bad in State of the Union

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WASHINGTON – Most members of Arizona’s congressional delegation said they found something to like in President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address Tuesday – and some areas where they thought it came up short.

The speech was Obama’s sixth, and his first before a Congress where both chambers are controlled by Republicans. The hour-long address was interrupted 76 times by mostly Democratic applause, and once by Republicans after the president noted that he has run his last campaign – causing the president to ad lib that he “won them both” in response to their clapping.

The reaction from Arizona lawmakers was mostly mixed, with many reacting like Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., who said he saw “highs and lows” in the speech.

For Flake, the president’s commitment to normalizing relations with Cuba was among the good, while his talk of raising taxes was definitely among the bad.

Freshman Rep. Martha McSally, R-Tucson, was “one of the first people on my feet” in response to the president’s call to hire veterans. But she added that her district has not seen the economic recovery the president boasted about in his speech.

“It’s up to him to put his money where his mouth is and change the tenor” of debate in Washington, McSally said after watching her first State of the Union address as a member of Congress.

Obama’s speech focused mostly on economic issues, touting some of his accomplishments – including a lower unemployment rate than before the beginning of the financial crisis – and suggesting more solutions that focus on “middle-class economics.”

“That means helping folks afford childcare, college, healthcare, a home, retirement -  and my budget will address each of these issues, lowering the taxes of working families and putting thousands of dollars back into their pockets each year,” Obama said.

He asked Congress to focus on technology and infrastructure that support “21st century business.” This means “modern ports, stronger bridges, faster trains and the fastest Internet,” he said.

Obama took a few jabs at the new Republican majority and threatened to veto legislation that would undo some of the biggest Democratic victories of the past six years.

“We can’t put the security of families at risk by taking away their health insurance, or unraveling the new rules on Wall Street, or refighting past battles on immigration when we’ve got a system to fix,” Obama said. “And if a bill comes to my desk that tries to do any of these things, it will earn my veto.”

But mostly, he encouraged Congress to find a way to work together.

“A better politics is one where we debate without demonizing each other; where we talk issues, and values, and principles and facts, rather than ‘gotcha’ moments or trivial gaffes or fake controversies that have nothing to do with people’s daily lives,” Obama said.

The president was cautious when discussing foreign policy, warning against “rash decisions” and “reacting to headlines instead of using our heads.”

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., issued a joint statement praising the president’s support of free trade and of legislation related to cybersecurity. But they went on to criticize Obama’s foreign policy, particularly his handling of terrorism in the Middle East.

“American leadership is clearly not ‘smarter’ under President Obama,” the statement said. “It is dangerously absent.”

But freshman Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Phoenix, said he was surprised about how forceful Obama was about Islamist fighters in Syria and Iraq. He said the president gave “a great speech, one of the better ones I’ve heard.”

“He laid a really good vision and opportunity for the middle class that has been lacking the past six years,” Gallego said. “The president laid out a good plan for the child-care tax credit, and community college to help the working-class families.”

But Gallego noted that “while the president touched on” the issue of immigration reform, “it could have used more attention.”

Flake criticized the president for his immigration rhetoric, saying that “other than sticking fingers at each other, we need a border bill that deals with those who are here now.”

Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Phoenix, said she was disappointed that Obama did not specifically address the issues with Veterans Affairs services in Phoenix and the nation, noting that VA “reform is moving slowly” and that many veterans are still “waiting for the care that they deserve.”

“The lack of the president’s focus on the VA affects Arizona,” she said.

But Sinema was pleased to hear Obama’s proposals for workplace flexibility and for no-cost community colleges, which she said would allow “young adults to graduate without debt.”

To Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Prescott, the president’s domestic promises were “the same song, it’s just a different date.”

“What the people want is very similar to what the ladies of the household want. They want a secured America, a healthy economy. They want a healthy family, and they want the rule of law,” Gosar said. “This president thinks government is the answer, and as Ronald Reagan would say, government is the problem.”

Sinema said the president’s speech alone would not determine whether this Congress will find the common ground he asked for.

“I don’t think the president’s speech sets the stage either way,” she said. “I think Congress gets to make that decision.”

- Cronkite News reporters Sarah Dinell, Kristen Hwang, Nihal Krishan, Miranda Leo, Liliana Salgado and Tara Terregino contributed to this story.