WASHINGTON – President Bush, weakened by record-low poll ratings, asserted he is still politically relevant and scolded the Democratic-led Congress on Wednesday for having "little to show for all the time that has gone by."
Trying to shape the political debate, Bush used a midmorning news conference to lecture lawmakers about their failure to complete action on any spending bills to keep the government running or to send him legislation dealing with education, housing and other matters.
Saying he did not share any blame for Congress' failure to act, Bush said, "I think it is their fault that bills aren't moving."
With his presidency in its final 15 months, his approval ratings at just 31 percent in the latest Associated Press-Ipsos poll and Democrats running Congress, Bush has little clout to push his own agenda through Congress.
However, he can stop the Democrats' proposals with his veto since Congress has been unable so far to override his rejection of troop withdrawal deadlines in Iraq and expanded stem cell research. The House on Thursday is expected to fail to override his veto of an expansion of a popular children's health insurance program.
Bush said his veto pen was "one way to ensure that I am relevant; that's one way to ensure that I am in the process. And I intend to use the veto."
Bush said Congress, under Democratic control for nine months, has not "managed to pass many important bills. Now the clock is winding down and in some key areas Congress is just getting started." Congress should act on mortgage relief for homeowners hit by the housing crisis, trade deals that would strengthen allies, legislation expanding U.S. markets and aid to military veterans, Bush said.
"I'm looking forward to getting some things done for the American people," Bush said. "And if it doesn't get done, I'm looking forward to reminding people as to why it's not getting done."
Democrats were quick to return Bush's criticism.
"While the Democratic Congress works to pass children's health insurance, to protect Americans while preserving civil liberties, and to end the disastrous Iraq war, the president chose to launch another partisan attack," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
While Bush opened his news conference with criticism of Congress, reporters turned the questioning to foreign policy subjects.
The president spoke candidly about the souring of relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin, a leader he once praised as straightforward and trustworthy. Relations have cooled because of U.S. criticism of Russia's backsliding on democracy, and Russia's objections to a U.S.-planned missile defense system in eastern Europe.
"We don't agree on a lot of issues; we do agree on some," Bush said. "Iran is one; nuclear proliferation is another. Reducing our nuclear warheads was an issue that we agreed on early."
Putin said last week he saw no "objective data" to prove Western claims that Iran is seeking nuclear weapons. Bush said he wanted to get a readout directly from Putin about his visit to Iran, the first by a Russian leader since 1943.
"I've told people that if you're interested in avoiding World War III, it seems like you ought to be interested in preventing them (Iran) from having the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon," Bush said.
Bush admitted he tried — but failed — last month to get Putin to talk about his political plans. "And he was wily. He wouldn't tip his hand," Bush said. Putin has opened the door to becoming Russia's prime minister and retaining power when his presidential term ends next year.
On another foreign policy front, Bush expressed opposition to Turkey staging a military offensive in Iraq against Kurdish rebels. Turkey's parliament voted 507-19 to empower the military to cross into Iraq although the government appeared willing to give diplomatic pressure more time to work.
"We are making it very clear to Turkey that we don't think it is in their interest to send troops into Iraq," Bush said at the news conference.
The president also urged Congress not to anger Turkey, a key ally in the war on Iraq, by approving a resolution labeling as genocide the World War I-era killing of up to 1.5 million Armenians in the final years of the Ottoman Empire.
"One thing Congress should not be doing is sorting out the historical record of the Ottoman Empire," he said. The measure has been losing support and appears unlikely to pass.
Bush seemed less concerned, however, about offending China. He defended his decision to attend a ceremony on Capitol Hill later Wednesday honoring the Dalai Lama, the spiritual head of Tibet's Buddhists. The ceremony angered Chinese leaders.
"One, I admire the Dalai Lama a lot; two, I support religious freedom, he supports religious freedom," Bush said.
Bush also expressed confidence about making progress between Israel and the Palestinians at an upcoming peace conference on the Middle East, to be held in Annapolis, Md. He said one reason for holding the conference is to get what he called "Arab buy-in" for a Palestinian state. "Part of the issue in the past has been that the Arab nations stood on the sidelines," Bush said. "And when a state was in reach, they weren't a part of the process, encouraging the parties to move forward."