President Bush punctuated his last State of the Union address Monday night by taking a big swing at the Democratic-controlled Congress, promising to veto any new taxes, drawing a line in the sand on secret spending measures and warning lawmakers not to tinker with his plan to stimulate the economy.
With the campaign to succeed him threatening to push him to the background in his last year in office, Bush devoted the bulk of his address to the economy, heeding opinion polls that indicate that it has surpassed the war as Americans’ foremost concern.
“Americans can be confident about our economic growth,” Bush said. “But in the short run, we can all see that growth is slowing.”
While the president went to bat for his military “surge” in Iraq, he devoted most of his speech to the economy, confronting Congress on two fronts, taxes and spending.
With his 2001 tax cuts set to expire, Bush reiterated his call that Congress make them permanent. And he declared that he would not allow any new taxes to become law.
“Members of Congress should know: If any bill raising taxes reaches my desk, I will veto it,” he promised.
Bush: Earmarks a betrayal of public trust
Bush also revived a common theme of presidents of both parties, challenging lawmakers to sharply curtail the practice of “earmarking” expenditures for their pet projects. But he went beyond the rhetoric of his predecessors by promising to veto any spending bill that does not succeed in cutting earmarks in half from current levels.
Moreover, he announced an executive order directing executive agencies to ignore any earmarks that are not voted on and included in a law approved by Congress.
Most earmarks are slipped into the final reports on bills to direct funding to local projects like bridges, highways and schools, never having been debated on the floor or voted on by lawmakers. But Bush denounced the practice, declaring that “the people’s trust in their government is undermined by congressional earmarks.”
“If these items are truly worth funding, the Congress should debate them in the open and hold a public vote,” he said.
Aides said Bush decided against making his order retroactive to expenditures in the current budget for fear of igniting a political uproar at a time when he is pushing Congress to quickly approve, without changes, his $150 billion proposal to stimulate the economy.
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Bush’s proposal is running into resistance in the Senate, where Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Democrats on the Finance Committee would likely seek to boost the president’s package of tax rebates by including Social Security recipients and by extending unemployment benefits.
Sen. John McCain of Arizona, a Republican presidential candidate who has emphasized many of the themes Bush sounded Monday night, welcomed the president’s message but faulted him for not pushing even harder.
“I may have given a little more urgency to getting this stimulus passed immediately,” McCain said in an interview on MSNBC. “Let’s get going on that.”
But former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, another Republican candidate, hailed Bush’s “efforts on behalf of an economic stimulus package,” calling it “a valuable first step.”
“I hope that the Democratic leadership in Congress will cooperate with the president in a swift and responsible manner,” Huckabee said in a statement.
Bush pulls back on entitlements
In other economic initiatives, Bush:
- Proposed a $300 million expansion of his No Child Left Behind education program to provide more options — mainly in “faith-based” and other parochial schools — for inner-city public school students.
- Announced that he would hold the annual meeting of the leaders of the United States, Canada and Mexico in New Orleans to highlight the city’s recovery from Hurricane Katrina.
- Called for reducing or eliminating about 150 federal programs that he deems wasteful
- Called on lawmakers to reauthorize programs to retrain workers left jobless by outsourcing.
- Urged more spending on alternative clean fuels and international programs to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases blamed for global warming.
- Proposed doubling spending on basic research in the physical sciences.
“To build a prosperous future, we must trust people with their own money and empower them to grow our economy,” the president will say.
But in a striking nod to his weakened position on Capitol Hill, Bush will not offer any remedies for the looming shortfall in entitlement programs such as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.
In previous speeches, Bush has made dramatic proposals to reform entitlement programs, which are projected to begin running out of money as the giant baby boom generation reaches retirement age. This year, however, he will explicitly step aside and yield the initiative.
“Now I ask members of Congress to offer your proposals and come up with a bipartisan solution to save these vital programs for our children and grandchildren,” he said.
Strong backing for surge in Iraq
Aides told NBC News’ David Gregory that Bush resisted the impulse to make his final State of the Union a valedictory retrospective of his achievements in office. In addition to the aggressive economic push, he also made a spirited defense of the U.S. military “surge” in Iraq.
“Some may deny the surge is working, but among the terrorists there is no doubt: Al-Qaida is on the run in Iraq, and this enemy will be defeated,” he said.
The president also essentially confirmed reports last week by NBC News that the U.S. mission in Iraq would change significantly from a combat profile to a support role bolstering Iraqi forces mainly with intelligence and logistics.
“Our objective in the coming year is to sustain and build on the gains we made in 2007, while transitioning to the next phase of our strategy,” the president said. “American troops are shifting from leading operations to partnering with Iraqi forces and, eventually, to a protective overwatch mission.”
Bush said the troops could begin pulling back because they had made great progress in the past year, allowing him to begin “implementing a policy of ‘return on success.’ ”
“The surge forces we sent to Iraq are beginning to come home,” he said.
But Bush cautioned against weakening American resolve in the struggle against international terrorism, which he called “the defining ideological struggle of the 21st century.”
“The terrorists oppose every principle of humanity and decency that we hold dear,” he said. “Yet in this war on terror, there is one thing we and our enemies agree on: In the long run, men and women who are free to determine their own destinies will reject terror and refuse to live in tyranny.”
No ‘safe haven’ for Iraq
While acknowledging that “the mission in Iraq has been difficult and trying for our nation,” Bush offered a vision of a free Iraq that “will deny al-Qaida a safe haven.”
“A free Iraq will show millions across the Middle East that a future of liberty is possible,” he said. “And a free Iraq will be a friend of America, a partner in fighting terror and a source of stability in a dangerous part of the world.”
But Democrats, led by Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, who gave the party's response to the speech , signaled that they would not accept Bush’s reassurances.
“The last five years have cost us dearly — in lives lost, in thousands of wounded warriors whose futures may never be the same, in challenges not met here at home because our resources were committed elsewhere,” Sebelius said. “America’s foreign policy has left us with fewer allies and more enemies.”
Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., a former Republican who reached the Senate on the strength of his anti-war message, criticized Bush for focusing too closely on Iraq at the expense of Afghanistan and Pakistan, where he said the threat from al-Qaida was growing.
“When the president tries to look at Iraq separate from the region, he is not being honest,” Webb said in an interview on MSNBC. “We have failed again with this administration in terms of putting the right diplomatic arrangement in place.”
Clinton, Obama dismiss Bush’s remarks
In addition to McCain, two other major presidential candidates were in the chamber for Bush’s final State of the Union. The front-runners for the Democratic nomination, Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois returned to Capitol Hill for the evening before quickly getting back on the campaign trial.
The senators joined in most of the ritual applause for Bush’s crowd-pleasing lines, but at least twice, Obama choice to remain seated when Clinton joined in standing ovations, first when Bush said that because families have to keep to a budget the government should, too, and later when the president called for full funding for U.S. troops in Iraq.
Both, however, agreed that they were glad to see Bush deliver his last State of the Union.
“Tonight is a red-letter night in American history,” Clinton said. “It is the last time George Bush will give the State of the Union. Next year, it will be a Democratic president giving it.”
Obama said in a statement: “Tonight was President Bush’s last State of the Union, and I do not believe history will judge his administration kindly.”
NBC’s David Gregory and Kelly O’Donnell contributed to this report from Washington.