WASHINGTON – President Bush, in his last State of the Union message, will call anew Monday night for patience on Iraq, propose a $300 million initiative for children trapped in struggling inner-city schools and suggest termination of scores of federal programs.
Previewing some highlights of Bush's primetime speech to Congress, a high-ranking White House official also said the president will announce plans to have the United States host the next hemispheric summit in hurricane-ravaged New Orleans. The administration earlier Monday said that Bush was to use his nationally broadcast address to attack the so-called "earmarks," special projects lawmakers often insert into Congress's spending bills.
Watch FOX News Channel and FOXNews.com for President Bush's State of the Union address live at 9 p.m. ET Monday night.
White House counselor Ed Gillespie, describing Bush's plans for a new school initiative, said Monday afternoon that Bush "has some concerns about the declining number of faith-based and parochial schools in inner cities around the country and low-income neighborhoods." Because of this, Gillespie said, Bush is ready to "urge Congress to enact a program he calls 'Pell Grants for Kids.' "
The money would "provide alternatives for children now trapped in struggling public schools," Gillespie told reporters.
Also, Bush was announcing that an annual meeting involving the leaders of the United States, Canada and Mexico will be held in New Orleans — a move designed, according to Gillespie, to "demonstrate how this great American city of New Orleans is rebounding."
On spending, Bush plans to announce his desire to reduce or eliminate some 150 federal programs that Gillespie deemed "wasteful or bloated." Bush's final budget proposal to Congress is due shortly, and lawmakers for the most part decide which programs are trimmed or scrapped.
On Iraq, Bush will seek to remind the country that the battle-scarred nation is the "central front on the war on terror," Gillespie said.
The president planned to press Congress — particularly the Senate, where he senses trouble — to finish an economic stimulus package fast.
And he will pledge to veto any spending bill that does not cut earmarks in half from levels spelled out in the current budget. The White House said that Bush planned to sign an executive order on Tuesday directing agencies to ignore any future earmarks that are not actually written into law, but rather tucked into obscure "report" language. The White House also said such a move will force Congress to make its spending more transparent. However, that plan leaves untouched the more than 11,700 earmarks totaling $16.9 billion that Congress approved last year.
White House press secretary Dana Perino said Bush decided to restrict earmarks going forward — not backward — because Congress first deserved "a very clear indication of what he was going to do."
Gillespie said the United States provides more than half of the world's food aid, and that Bush will propose buying some crops from farmers in the developing world rather than shipping surplus U.S. goods abroad.
The final State of the Union of the Bush presidency will be roughly split between domestic and foreign matters. Expect few surprises and no big initiatives. To the degree the speech favors the pragmatic over the bold, the White House offers a two-word explanation: Blame Congress.
Bush's efforts to overhaul Social Security and immigration died on Capitol Hill, but not just because of Democratic opposition. He also ran into walls put up by members of his own party. Heading into the speech, White House press secretary Dana Perino said it is unrealistic to expect Congress to take on big problems.
The White House strategy now is to go after what's left of that elusive common ground; Bush has 12 months remaining, and an even shorter window for legislation this election year. So he will push Congress to pass some short-term economic aid and make permanent his first-term tax cuts, which are due to expire in 2010.
On the stimulus plan, the White House is trying to build pressure on the Senate to act quickly. Bush has already brokered a deal with House leaders that would provide rebate checks to 117 million families and $50 billion in incentives for businesses to invest in new plants and equipment.
Some senators, however, want to add elements, like boosting food stamp or unemployment benefits.
Gillespie said senators should not slow the deal or "run the risk of junking it up." Bush is expected to send a similar message.
Bush will call for housing reform, better health care and veterans' care, alternative energy development and renewal of the No Child Left Behind education law.
The domestic section of Bush's speech will also remind the nation of his ideas on climate change, faith-based programs and stem cell research. When he pivots to foreign matters, Bush will emphasize progress in Iraq, and repeat that troop withdrawals will happen when they won't undermine Iraq's success.
Bush also does not plan to turn the speech into a retrospective look at his time in office.
A pervasive current of the address will be trusting and empowering Americans. It is a theme Bush has wanted to emphasize in a speech for months.
Of course, the buzz about town concerns the next presidency, not this one.
As long as he commands the military and retains veto power, Bush remains relevant. Yet his clout is slipping. That is the political reality given his approval ratings, which are near the worst of his presidency, and his outsider role in the campaign for the 2008 presidential nominations.
The top Democratic contenders, Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama, will be on hand. Those two alone will draw most of the reaction shots shown on television. A leading Republican candidate, Sen. John McCain, is staying in Florida, where Tuesday's Republican primary will shorten Bush's news cycle.
Ahead of the speech, top Democrats sought to frame expectations for it.
"As we await President Bush's final State of the Union address Monday night we know one thing for sure: that cherished faith in America has been greatly diminished, and with it, our ability to respond to the critical challenges that threaten our security," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
Bush's language is expected to be tougher when it comes to something else he wants from Congress: the extension of a law that allows surveillance of suspected terrorists. The current eavesdropping law, which allows government surveillance of phone calls and e-mails involving people in the United States, expires Friday.
The Democratic Response
Gov. Kathleen Sebelius plans to make the need for bipartisan work in Washington a theme of her response to President Bush's State of the Union address.
Democratic congressional leaders have chosen Sebelius to give their party's response to the address.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said Monday that they picked the Kansas governor because she has been successful in governing a Republican-leaning state.
Sebelius said she believes America is developing a new political majority in which people don't identify themselves with partisan labels. She noted that half of the nation's 28 Democratic governors are from states carried by the Republican president in 2004.