WASHINGTON — A politically weakened President Bush implored a skeptical Congress Tuesday night to embrace his unpopular plan to send more U.S. troops to Iraq, saying it represents the best hope in a war the United States must not lose. “Give it a chance to work,” he said.
In his hour-long State of the Union address, Bush laid out a broad agenda with bipartisan appeal that touched economic, educational and energy policies — even as he sought to combat strong opposition to sending more troops to the war in Iraq and an increase in the size of the military.
“Our country is pursuing a new strategy in Iraq — and I ask you to give it a chance to work,” he said. “And I ask you to support our troops in the field — and those on their way.”
Playing to both parties, Bush called for balancing the federal budget — without raising taxes — and halving budget earmarks that are passed “when not even C-Span is watching.” The president also pushed for renewal of his No Child Left Behind legislation and pledged to require a five-fold increase in alternative fuels to help “confront the serious challenge of global climate change.”
Bush, whose tone resembled the bipartisanship he pledged after the 2000 election, also called on politicians to “make life better for our fellow Americans, and help them to build a future of hope and opportunity — and this is the business before us tonight.”
“Our citizens don’t much care which side of the aisle we sit on — as long as we are willing to cross that aisle when there is work to be done,” Bush said.
“We are not the first to come here with government divided and uncertainty in the air. Like many before us, we can work through our differences and achieve big things for the American people,” he said.
Drama in the political arena
It was a night of political theater as Bush went before the first Democratic-controlled Congress in a dozen years with his lowest approval ratings in polls.
The speech audience included up to a dozen House and Senate members who have announced they are running for president or are considered possible contenders.
And in a nod to the power shift that he now faces, Bush congratulated Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat who is the first woman speaker of the House. Reaching out to the Democrats, Bush opened with a tribute to Pelosi and paused to shake her hand, and his words “Madame Speaker” drew a brief standing ovation from Democratic lawmakers.
Bush also asked for prayers for Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson, hospitalized for more than a month after suffering a brain hemorrhage, and Republican Georgia Rep. Charlie Norwood, suffering from cancer.
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‘He has not listened to Americans’
The congenial mood would not last long, as Democrats — and even some Republicans — scoffed at Bush’s policy.
“The president took us into this war recklessly,” the Democrats’ chosen messenger, Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia, said in his prepared response . “We are now, as a nation, held hostage to the predictable — and predicted — disarray that has followed.”
Webb, a Vietnam veteran who was Navy secretary during Republican President Reagan’s administration, called for a new direction. “The majority of the nation no longer supports the way this war is being fought; nor does the majority of our military,” he said.
“Unfortunately, tonight the president demonstrated he has not listened to Americans’ single greatest concern: the war in Iraq,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Pelosi said in a joint statement. “We will continue to hold him accountable for changing course in Iraq.”
Republican Sen. Norm Coleman of Minnesota also took issue with Bush. “I can’t tell you what the path to success is, but it’s not what the president has put on the table.”
Bush’s speech came as key Republicans joined Democrats in drafting resolutions of opposition to the plans Bush announced two weeks ago to send an additional 21,500 U.S. troops to Iraq.
Bush said he had reviewed the decision with military commanders and had considered every possible approach. “In the end I chose this course of action because it provides the best chance of success,” he said. “Many in this chamber understand that America must not fail in Iraq — because you understand that the consequences of failure would be grievous and far-reaching.”
Despite widespread opposition to his policies, Bush said that “both parties and both branches should work in close consultation.”
Iraq: ‘A generational struggle’
Increasingly isolated, Bush remained unyielding on Iraq.
Bush said the Iraq war had changed dramatically with the outbreak of sectarian warfare and reprisals, calling the possibility of a regional conflict “a nightmare scenario.”
“We could expect an epic battle between Shia extremists backed by Iran, and Sunni extremists aided by al-Qaida and supporters of the old regime,” he said. “A contagion of violence could spill out across the country — and in time the entire region could be drawn into the conflict.”
Unlike the friendly Republican-dominated Congress of the past six years, the new Congress has not shied away from challenging the president. Bush moved to shore up support for his policies in Iraq by announcing a special advisory council.
“We will share ideas for how to position America to meet every challenge that confronts us,” he said.
Bush also asked Congress to approve an increase the ranks of the Army and Marine Corps by 92,000 troops over the next five years, as well as establish a volunteer Civilian Reserve Corps that would “ease the burden on the Armed Forces by allowing us to hire civilians with critical skills to serve on missions abroad when America needs them.”
A call for less gasoline consumption
Bush also called for Americans to slash gasoline consumption by up to 20 percent by 2017.
Bush envisions the goal being achieved primarily through a sharp escalation in the amount of ethanol and other alternative fuels that the federal government mandates must be produced. The rest would come from raising fuel economy standards for passenger cars.
“We need to reform and modernize fuel economy standards for cars the way we did for light trucks — and conserve up to eight and a half billion more gallons of gasoline by 2017,” Bush said.
The president is proposing to set the amount of ethanol and other alternative fuels to be blended into the fuel supply at 35 billion gallons by 2017, up from 7.5 billion gallons in 2012.
Though some argue that such a drastic increase is unrealistic, White House Deputy Chief of Staff Joel Kaplan previously said the White House is banking on the new mandate — which would need approval from Congress — spurring investments in the industry and giving technological research a boost.
Rewriting mileage rules
The other piece of Bush’s energy proposal is something he has unsuccessfully asked Congress for in the past — the ability to rewrite mileage rules for new car fleets. The White House calls it a safe way to improve car mileage, but some critics suggest that it could instead spur automakers to produce more gas guzzlers.
The Transportation Department already has revamped its rules for pickups, sport utility vehicles and minivans, setting a sliding mileage scale that is based on a vehicle’s size. The overall standard was increased slightly; smaller vehicles now must meet higher mileage requirements than do larger ones. The biggest SUVs were exempted until 2011.
Bush wants the same ability to reform mileage rules for passenger cars, which today must meet a fleet average of 27.5 miles per gallon, a standard unchanged in two decades. He would include a system of trading or “banking” credits to meet new standards, Kaplan said.
With debate over the Iraq war sending Republicans scurrying away from the president and his job approval rating hovering in the mid-30 percent range, Bush’s overall agenda was twofold: present himself as a leader with a sincere desire to work across party lines and pressure on Democratic leaders to either go along or offer alternatives.
The White House had promised the president would be bold. But spiraling war expenses and huge federal deficits precluded anything too costly.
Health insurance deduction
But the cold reception that Bush’s ideas on health care received on Capitol Hill in the days ahead of the speech offered a striking reminder of the difficulty he faces in the new climate.
The president is proposing to change to how the tax code treats health insurance, by counting employer contributions toward health insurance as taxable income while establishing a standard deduction for anyone with insurance. The White House says it would introduce increased market forces to the health care industry and make coverage more affordable for the uninsured. Aides estimated the plan would represent a tax increase for only about 20 percent of employer-covered workers.
Rep. Pete Stark, D-Calif., chairman of a key health subcommittee in the House, said he would not even consider holding hearings on the proposal. He dismissed it as a dead-on-arrival attempt to encourage employers to stop offering health insurance.
“You can assume a lot of people are going to do the old ‘it’s dead on arrival,’” White House press secretary Tony Snow said. “It’s not. This is a proposal that’s going to make health care cheaper for 100 million Americans or more.”
Gonzales stays away from address
Attorney General Alberto Gonzales stayed away from the Capitol Tuesday night in case of a catastrophic attack or accident as Bush delivered his sixth State of the Union address.
By long-standing tradition, a member of the president’s Cabinet misses the speech to Congress as a precaution against the entire administration’s being wiped out and to maintain the presidential line of succession.
The State of the Union address typically draws most members of both congressional houses and other top government officials, including Vice President Dick Cheney, who is also the president of the Senate.
A ‘surge’ of interest
Three GOP senators and one moderate Democrat unveiled nonbinding legislation expressing disagreement with the plan and urging Bush to consider “all options and alternatives.”
“We’ve had four other surges since we first went into Iraq,” said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, one of the sponsors. “None of them produced a long-lasting change in the situation on the ground.”
In the House, members of the GOP leadership drafted a series of what they called “strategic benchmarks” and said the White House should submit monthly reports to Congress measuring the Iraqi government’s progress in meeting them.
Meanwhile, majority Democrats intend to hold votes within days in the House and Senate on tougher bills declaring that the troop increase is “not in the national interest.”
In other areas, the president addressed
- Health care. Bush proposed a tax deduction of $7,500 for individuals and $15,000 for families regardless of whether they buy their own health insurance or receive medical coverage at work. He also would subject employer-sponsored health care benefits to taxation, meaning those with policies worth more than the deduction would see a tax hike. But those who get policies at work worth less than the deduction, the preponderance of workers with employer-provided insurance, would get a tax break. Another proposal would give some federal money now going to hospitals and other facilities to states for programs to reduce the number of uninsured.
- Education. Bush pushed for Congress to renew his education accountability law, No Child Left Behind, which expires this year.
- Immigration. Bush again urged comprehensive reform that goes beyond tougher border security.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.