WASHINGTON – Congressional Democrats, trying to have the first word on President Bush's State of the Union speech, challenged him Friday to renounce use of waterboarding in interrogations, close Guantanamo Bay to detainees and outline new policies toward Pakistan and Iran.
Domestically, Democrats said they expect Bush to invest more in the development of renewable energy and to support any compromise Republicans and Democrats strike to renew a law governing the president's secretive surveillance program.
At the National Press Club, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid launched into a tightly coordinated pair of speeches in which Pelosi focused on domestic policy — especially job creation — and the Nevada Democrat demanded that Bush restore the nation's standing in the international community.
Pelosi opened her speech with an acknowledgment of the political context in which Bush will deliver the last State of the Union address of his presidency.
"Let's hope this is our last Democratic pre-buttal, that next year, we will have a Democratic president," Pelosi ad-libbed at the top.
In a bow to that reality, Bush is expected to focus Monday night on unfinished business and forgo the big ideas he unveiled in States of the Union past, the White House said. The economy will be a dominant theme, and Bush will ask Congress to make permanent the tax cuts that are set to expire in 2010. He will prod Congress to extend a law allowing surveillance on suspected terrorists, renew his education law and approve free-trade pacts with Colombia, Panama and South Korea.
He also is likely to recycle ideas on alternative energy, affordable health care and housing reform, said White House spokeswoman Dana Perino.
Democrats shouldn't count on Bush taking their suggestions. But the Democrats' State of the Union strategy was to make distinctions that might improve their Election Day prospects for increasing their congressional majority and winning the White House.
Reid began his speech by challenging Bush to renounce waterboarding, the interrogation technique in which a detainee is strapped down while water is poured over his face, causing the sensation of drowning. Bush has refused to say if waterboarding amounts to torture techniques banned by name by the Pentagon.
The Senate leader also urged Bush to take a new approach to Pakistan, starting with a demand for an independent investigation into the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. And Reid urged Bush to send U.S. diplomats to meet with their counterparts in Iran, saying, "We must not be afraid to communicate with unfriendly countries," Reid said. Doing so "is not a sign of weakness, but of strength."
Reid also called for Bush to re-establish the nation's international standing.
"Our first goal as a country must be to restore that moral authority," Reid said. "It won't happen at all without the moral leadership of the president of the United States. So perhaps on Monday, President Bush will show that leadership."
For all of their tough talk, the speeches reflected the trouble Democrats have had since retaking control of Congress a year ago of getting their House and Senate caucuses to speak with one voice on Iraq, and their failure to make good on the promise to force Bush to begin withdrawing troops.
Pelosi herself has said the Democrats' failures on Iraq overshadowed their accomplishments during that year, such as raising the minimum wage for the first time in a decade.
In her speech Friday, Pelosi spoke of Iraq only in closing. She stuck mostly to the familiar theme of taking the nation in a "new direction," urging lawmakers and Bush to supplement the short-term economic stimulus package they announced Thursday with broader reforms in education, health care and the environment.
Republican National Committee spokesman Alex Conant took aim at the Democratic leaders, saying, "Reid and Pelosi have consistently failed to prepare for the real challenges facing the United States in the 21st Century. Their top priority should be reauthorizing our intelligence community's ability to monitor terrorists' phone calls — not giving partisan speeches."
In fact, Reid warned Bush that if congressional Republicans block legislation to reauthorize the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act governing the surveillance program, he's in danger of losing the program altogether.
"Either extend the law...or there will be no wiretapping," Reid said, describing the quandary facing lawmakers of all stripes. "Does he want the law? It's up to him."
For his part, Reid did not mention Senate prospects for an economic stimulus package announced Thursday. And Pelosi did not urge the Senate to pass the package as is, opening the door for Reid to add such provisions as an extension of unemployment benefits that House Republicans rejected.