WASHINGTON – Delivering a State of the Union address to a Democratic-led Congress for the first time, President Bush pleaded Tuesday night for members of both parties to follow his lead and give his latest plan to end the sectarian violence in Iraq "a chance to work."
With opinion polls showing his approval ratings at an all-time low and with some members of his own party expressing opposition to his plan, Bush acknowledged that the war in Iraq is not the same one the U.S. entered into nearly four years ago.
But the president said that abandoning that country to insurgents would be a nightmare for the United States.
"Our country is pursuing a new strategy in Iraq and I ask you to give it a chance to work. And I ask you to support our troops in the field and those on their way," Bush said.
Bush vowed to press on because to leave Iraq before securing Baghdad would lead to "an epic battle by extremists backed by Iran and Sunni extremists aided by Al Qaeda and supporters of the old regime."
"This is where matters stand tonight, in the here and now. I have spoken with many of you in person. I respect you and the arguments you have made. We went into this largely united — in our assumptions, and in our convictions. And whatever you voted for, you did not vote for failure," he said.
• Photo Essay: State of the Union Address
Bush introduced a new strategy for Iraq on Jan. 10 that calls for an additional 21,500 U.S. troops to help secure Baghdad while placing additional requirements on the Iraqi government to find a political solution. Noting a war-weary nation and public opposition to a buildup, Bush warned in his speech that the United States "must not fail in Iraq" because to do would have far-reaching consequences.
"I chose this course of action because it provides the best chance of success. 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," the president said.
In a speech that started with domestic issues, a nod to the president's low approval ratings and his first State of the Union speech to a congressional Democratic majority, Bush began by noting the historic occasion — the first time the president's address was introduced by a female House speaker.
"Tonight, I have a high privilege and distinct honor of my own — as the first President to begin the State of the Union message with these words: Madame Speaker," Bush said.
In trying to seek bipartisanship where he could find it, the president also sent well wishes to two lawmakers — Republican Rep. Charlie Norwood and Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson, both absent because of medical problems.
While the chamber seemed polite and respectful with few Democratic catcalls — reportedly on the orders of Pelosi — Bush spoke to a frequently dead-quiet room, in which he had opportunity to make his case if not the force to win over any converts.
One area in which lawmakers could agree was on the warning from Bush that America's enemies have not put down their weapons and have every intention of continuing to terrorize the United States and U.S. interests. But where the president and lawmakers differ is over a belief in the president's pursuit for an ongoing military campaign in Iraq.
Freshman Virginia Sen. Jim Webb, who delivered the Democratic response, said Democrats do not believe a troop increase in Iraq is in the national interest.
"We need a new direction," he said. "The majority of the nation no longer supports the way this war is being fought; nor does the majority of our military."
Webb also blasted Bush and other administration officials for what he called mismanagement of the war and entry into Iraq when the U.S. should have paid more energy and attention to the greater War on Terror.
"The president took us into this war recklessly. He disregarded warnings from ... many, many others with great integrity and long experience in national security affairs. We are now, as a nation, are held hostage to the predictable — and predicted — disarray that has followed," Webb said.
"The war's costs to our nation have been staggering. Financially, the damage to our reputation around the world, the lost opportunities to defeat the forces of international terrorism and especially the precious blood of our citizens who have stepped forward to serve," he said, adding that he doesn't want "a precipitous withdrawal that ignores the possibility of further chaos" but also favors a "formula that will in short order allow our combat forces to leave Iraq."
Senate Democrats on Wednesday are set to begin debating a nonbinding resolution that would say "it is not in the national interest of the United States to deepen its military involvement in Iraq, particularly by escalating U.S. troop presence in Iraq."
But Republican supporters of the president backed his charge that bolting from Iraq would be devastating to the U.S.
"Leaving Iraq before our mission is completed would devastate the stability of the region and embolden terrorists worldwide. We must stand shoulder to shoulder with our brave troops as they continue to fight for victory," said Rep. Jim DeMint, R-S.C.
After the speech, microphones caught an unidentified, presumably Republican, member of Congress telling the president that his comment that lawmakers did not vote for failure was his best line of the night.
In his sixth annual address to a joint session of Congress, Bush admitted that he too wishes the war in Iraq had come to an end by now.
"Every one of us wishes that this war were over and won. Yet it would not be like us to leave our promises unkept, our friends abandoned and our own security at risk. Ladies and gentlemen: On this day, at this hour, it is still within our power to shape the outcome of this battle. So let us find our resolve and turn events toward victory," Bush said.
Bush also noted that while the American public may have lost the will to continue fighting in Iraq, "Islamist radicals" have not, and are willing to take the war to U.S. shores if given the chance.
"In the sixth year since our nation was attacked, I wish I could report to you that the dangers have ended. They have not. And so it remains the policy of this government to use every lawful and proper tool of intelligence, diplomacy, law enforcement and military action to do our duty, to find these enemies and to protect the American people," he said.
While Democrats stood silent when the president urged them to accept an ongoing war in Iraq, many seemed receptive to Bush's call to expand the active Army and Marine Corps by 92,000 over the next five years.
"A second task we can take on together is to design and establish a volunteer Civilian Reserve Corps. Such a corps would function much like our military reserve. It 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. And it would give people across America who do not wear the uniform a chance to serve in the defining struggle of our time," he said.
Bush also won more enthusiastic reception when he said the U.S. was working with allies to create a nuclear free Korean peninsula, continuing to fund HIV/AIDS treatment in Africa and trying to raise awareness of the crisis in Darfur. But if tepid applause is an indicator, lawmakers were skeptical about his insistence that diplomatic negotiations are ongoing to bring about "peace to the Holy Land" and "the establishment of a democratic Palestinian state living side-by-side with Israel in peace and security."
Taking a cue from House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, who on Monday suggested a special House committee to consider benchmarks for measuring successes in Iraq, Bush also proposed an advisory council to suggest ways to deal with the broader War on Terror.
"Both parties and both branches should work in close consultation. And this is why I propose to establish a special advisory council on the War on Terror, made up of leaders in Congress from both political parties. We will share ideas for how to position America to meet every challenge that confronts us. And we will show our enemies abroad that we are united in the goal of victory," Bush said.
Domestic Pursuits May Have a Chance
Keeping with the notion of a united government despite the split legislative and executive branches, Bush said Americans want a better life and a bright outlook on the future regardless of what side of the aisle the majority sits. To that end, the president tried out some new proposals that could offer opportunity for cooperation.
Click here to read Bush's 2007 State of the Union initiatives.
The president suggested a $7,500 tax deduction for individuals and $15,000 for families for those who purchase health care insurance, including those who are covered by employer health plans. Those who have employer-sponsored health plans, however, could be subject to a new tax, depending on whether their policies are more or less than the tax deduction.
The plan to pay for health insurance for 80 percent of the public by taxing the benefits of what the White House has labeled as a high income groups.
The president's proposal for a health care tax deduction for families buying insurance would cut costs for 100 million Americans, although administration officials admit costs could go up for 20 million to 30 million people. The proposal would cost $30 billion to $40 billion in initial years, a U.S. official said Tuesday.
According to the president's plan, the deduction would end up saving more money than the government spends by around 2013.
The response by many Democrats to the president's health care tax deduction was to call it dead on arrival.
"When it comes to health care, we welcome the president's commitment to help the 47 million people living without health care and the millions more in danger of losing it. However, the president's plan falls short of meeting the health care challenge. Health care is a crisis in costs and coverage, and the president's plan will make both fronts worse for millions of Americans," Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said in a written response.
However, Sen. Max Baucus, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, is already working with Republicans to merge small business tax breaks with a rise in the minimum wage, and in his response left an opening that could prove pivotal to the White House on health care.
"The president is right to recognize that we have to start reforming health care now, or else risk Americans’ lives and the loss of our economic competitiveness. I plan to review his ideas carefully. To get traction, his proposals need to meet two tests: getting new health coverage to people who have none, and better coverage to those who don’t have enough," Baucus, D-Mont., said.
Elsewhere, the president said he also wants to offer states federal grants when they make basic private health care insurance available to their poor and sick citizens. Bush said he was asking Secretary of Health and Human Services Mike Leavitt to work with Congress to create "Affordable Choices" grants from current federal funding.
"These grants would give our nation's governors more money and more flexibility to get private health insurance to those most in need," he said.
"In all we do, we must remember that the best health care decisions are made not by government and insurance companies, but by patients and their doctors," the president told Congress.
Energy Initiatives to Reduce Dependency on Foreign Oil
In last year's address Bush said the United States is "addicted to oil." This year, he asked Congress to help him break that addiction by enacting an initiative that would cut U.S. gasoline consumption by 20 percent in the next 10 years. To reach that goal, Bush called for setting a mandatory fuel standard for alternative and renewable gases to 35 billion gallons by 2017, nearly five times the current target.
Ethanol, already in use in retail gasoline, is growing in acceptance because it is cleaner, renewable — it can be made from corn and sugar cane, for instance — and home grown. However, the president's new fuel standards were not limited to ethanol.
"We need to press on with battery research for plug-in and hybrid vehicles and expand the use of clean diesel vehicles and biodiesel fuel. We must continue investing in new methods of producing ethanol -- using everything from wood chips, to grasses, to agricultural wastes," he said.
Bush also asked Congress for the authority to reform the Corporate Fuel Economy — or CAFE standards — for passenger cars to reduce usage without affecting safety by an additional 8.5 billion gallons in 10 years.
Added to that, the president called for stepping up domestic oil production in what aides call "environmentally sensitive ways." He also said he would seek to double the current capacity of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve
Democrats were skeptical of the plan even before it was officially proposed. Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said the president was "ducking the issue" of climate change by not embracing some mandatory emission reductions.
House Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel suggested he would give the president's ideas a fair shake but questioned the president's commitment to them.
"Under his presidency our dependence on foreign oil as a key part of our energy policy has grown," said Rep. Emanuel, D-Ill. "It's one thing to call for goals and it's another thing to have accomplished or at least made some progress on that.
Touting an economy that has seen "uninterrupted job growth" that has resulted in 7.2 million new jobs over 41 straight months, the president said inflation is low and wages are rising, something that can continue "not with more government but with more enterprise."
Bush named three areas where the economy can be helped by government attention — creating a balanced federal budget, which he proposes to achieve in five years; keeping entitlements sound, for which the president offered a warning but no proposals; and stopping earmarks, the prized authority by lawmakers to slip their pet projects into budget bills. Lawmakers have voted to bring earmarks to light, but have not stopped their inclusion in the budget process.
"These special interest items are often slipped into bills at the last hour — when not even C-SPAN is watching," Bush said, noting that in 2005, 13,000 earmarks totaled nearly $18 billion. More than 90 percent of them are never voted on.
"You did not vote them into law. I did not sign them into law. Yet they are treated as if they have the force of law. The time has come to end this practice. So let us work together to reform the budget process — expose every earmark to the light of day and to a vote in Congress and cut the number and cost of earmarks at least in half by the end of this session," Bush said.
2007 May be the Year For Immigration Reform
While the first half of the president's speech was devoted to domestic policy, one of those issues could have broad international implications. Bush called for comprehensive immigration reform to be passed this year that would include a "guest worker program" favored by most Democrats and opposed by conservative Republicans who say it will only encourage more aliens to cross the borders illegally to join the estimated 11 million already here.
Bush acknowledged that immigration is a divisive issue that evokes passions on both sides, but argued that a temporary worker program would "take pressure off the border" while establishing a legal path for foreign workers to enter the U.S. on a temporary basis.
"As a result, they won't have to try to sneak in — and that will leave border agents free to chase down drug smugglers, and criminals and terrorists," he said. "We will enforce our immigration laws at the worksite, and give employers the tools to verify the legal status of their workers so there is no excuse left for violating the law."
Bush said any resolution must be done "without animosity and without amnesty."
Renewal of No Child Left Behind
Speaking to issues of importance to many of those gallery guests, Bush called for reauthorization of his signature education bill, the No Child Left Behind Act. He asked for increased funding for the program, which has faced criticism for not providing enough federal dollars to help schools make the cuts under the higher standards written into the law.
"Now the task is to build on this success, without watering down standards, without taking control from local communities and without backsliding and calling it reform," Bush said. "We can make sure our children are prepared for the jobs of the future — and our country is more competitive — by strengthening math and science skills."
Of the ideas in the offering, Bush wants to require states to publish a report card showcasing how students do on state tests compared to a rigorous national test and make tutoring more widely available.
The administration's education proposals also call for giving vouchers to students in schools that persistently fail to meet progress goals set by the federal law, something opposed by Sen. Ted Kennedy, chairman of the committee in charge of reauthorization.
"We need new and creative ideas for helping our schools to improve and our students to succeed. Instead, the president has proposed more of the same," Kennedy said. "Once again, he proposes siphoning crucial resources from our public schools."
As is typical for the State of the Union address, one Cabinet member and one member of Congress sat out the joint session. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and Democratic Rep. George Miller of California were both absent in the event catastrophe hit the building.
Among the guests in attendance to join first lady Laura Bush were soldiers, educators, faith-based and health care service providers. Those singled out, recognizable to many at least by reputation, were Julie Aigner-Clark, founder of The Baby Einstein Company; New York construction worker Wesley Autrey, who earned fame and the city's highest civilian award, the Bronze Medallion, earlier this month for jumping onto the tracks to save a man who had fallen in a New York City subway station; and Dikembe Mutombo, Houston Rockets star and naturalized American who spends his off-season working as an NBA ambassador for African causes.
Bush also singled out Sgt. Tommy Rieman of Independence, Ky., who won the Silver Star after volunteering to serve in Iraq.
Quoting Autrey as saying, "We got guys and girls overseas dying for us to have our freedoms. We got to show each other some love," Bush wound up his speech by saying such acts demonstrate the decency and honor of this nation.
"There is something wonderful about a country that produces a brave and humble man like Wesley Autrey," Bush said. "In such courage and compassion, ladies and gentlemen, we see the spirit and character of America — and these qualities are not in short supply. ... We have been through a lot together. We have met challenges and faced dangers, and we know that more lie ahead. Yet we can go forward with confidence — because the State of our Union is strong ... our cause in the world is right ... and tonight that cause goes on."