WASHINGTON – President Bush said Tuesday that Americans are "understandably anxious" about their bottom lines, and skewered Congress for not passing a number of bills he said would put the economy on a better footing.
Bush called on Congress to pass legislation to ease U.S. energy reliance on foreign energy sources and to allay concerns about rising food prices and continuing housing problems, and he warned against raising taxes.
"It's a tough time for our economy. Across our country, many Americans are understandably anxious about issues affecting their pocketbook, from gas and food prices to mortgage and tuition bills. They're looking to their elected leaders in Congress for action," Bush said, speaking to reporters at the White House Rose Garden.
"Unfortunately, on many of these issues, all they're getting is delay," Bush said.
"I repeatedly submitted proposals to help address these problems, yet time after time, Congress chose to block them."
Bush did not mention the word "recession" in his opening remarks, and he avoided the word as reporters repeatedly quizzed him on the subject, preferring terms like "tough times" and "difficult" times.
In his only use of the "R" word, it was a glancing one. Asked specifically what it would take for him to call the ongoing stagnation a recession, Bush responded: "I will tell you that these are very difficult economic times. I would hope that those who worry about recession, slow-down — whatever you want to call it — make the tax cuts permanent. ...
"One of the things that government can do is either create more anxiety or less. And if you think your taxes are going to go up, that's going to make you anxious."
To ease energy costs, Bush called for the exploration of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, new oil refineries, alternative fuels, and fewer roadblocks to nuclear power.
"We ought to expand our capacity by permitting new refineries," Bush told reporters.
That suggestion, along with others, riled Democrats who believe Bush's energy policies are not only bad for the economy but bad for the environment.
"Today, the president provided a miserable performance of missed opportunities to really lead the nation," said Jim Manley, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., in a prepared release.
"Instead of proposing to rollback even more environmental regulations, the president should have called on the oil company executives to voluntarily keep prices from rising," Manley said, also saying oil companies should have fewer tax breaks, and should invest more in domestic refining capacity as well as cleaner fuels — especially in light of record profits.
Picking up on another Democratic concern, Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said "Our focus, our energy is going into Iraq. .. There ought to be some help for people at home." Democrats have been ramping up their attacks as congressional consideration of a war funding bill approaches, and the $12 billion or so a month being spent in Iraq is an increasing sore point.
"The president doesn't want to see a nickel go into anything domestic," Schumer added. "The president's priorities are so out of touch that it's mind-boggling."
And House Speaker Nancy Pelosi issued a statement saying Bush has taken too long to come up with economic solutions.
"The President can take three actions today to help our economy: lower gas prices by halting deposits to the Strategic Petroleum Reserve; save 116,000 green jobs and create hundreds of thousands more by dropping his veto threat from House legislation creating tax credits for renewable energy; and come to the table to help pass major reforms to our home lending industry which allow Americans at risk of foreclosure to affordably refinance, and to stabilize neighborhoods in foreclosure crisis," Pelosi said.
And continuing another dispute with the White House, Pelosi again called on a meeting with administration officials to come up with domestic economic solutions before moving on any foreign trade treaties.
The House bucked Bush earlier this month when it changed fast-track authority rules, effectively putting trade deal with Colombia on ice; the administration said the deal is important to both fighting drug trafficking and supporting a government that stands opposed to the likes of Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro.
Congressional Republicans backed Bush.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., laid blame of rising gas prices at the feet of Democrats, speaking with reporters.
"The top issue in the country these days is the price of gas at the pump. It's gone up $1.25 since the Democrats took over the Congress. Gasoline today at the pump is $1.25 more, on average, than it was when the Democrats took over Congress.
Why is that a good place to measure? Because during that period, we've had an opportunity to build more refineries, and the Democratic majority voted it down. ... On the production side of the equation, this new majority is not interested in doing anything," McConnell said.
And the top Republican in the House, John Boehner of Ohio, accused Pelosi of foot-dragging.
"If Speaker Pelosi and her Democratic colleagues do not have the commonsense plan they promised the American people two years ago, they should finally admit it and work with Republicans to reduce our dependence on foreign sources of energy, lower energy prices here at home, and invest in all forms of energy to create American jobs and grow our economy," Boehner said, according to a prepared statement.
"It's well past time for a bipartisan, comprehensive approach to address this critical issue, as well as other issues affecting our economy, on behalf of middle-class families and small businesses," he added.
Bush also called on Congress to pass legislation to help more families stay in their homes, and to give the federal government greater authority to buy student loans.
During the question-answer session, Bush also faced questions about the recent public airing of the reports of Syria's development of a nuclear weapons facility; former president Jimmy Carter's visit with the leader of the terror group Hamas; getting things done in Congress this year; and war spending.
Bush declined to criticize Carter's trip to the Mideast, blaming the roadblocks to peace on Hamas. And he sidestepped a question over who in the administration spoke to — or might have advised him against his trip. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice says her agency told him not to go; Carter says that's not the case.
On the election, Bush said he believed McCain would keep the War on Terror front and center, and "I do think he'll be the president."
In response to a question about expanding economic woes, and whether or not the economic stimulus package went far enough, Bush pointed out that the tax rebate checks — worth $152 billion — first started rolling out on Monday. And the effect should be taking place shortly.
The checks began arriving via direct deposit in some bank accounts, but Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson said that a second stimulus package, an idea proposed by Democrats, would make it harder to balance the federal budget.
"We're not supporting a second stimulus plan," Paulson told FOX Business network. "The whole idea was doing something that will make a difference this year and there's no doubt that putting money in the hands of people very quickly who can spend it will make a difference."
Bush has long sought sweeping legislation to increase investment in alternative energy sources. The White House has acknowledged the measure would do nothing to address the current energy price squeeze affecting consumers. Oil prices hit an all-time high near $120 a barrel on Monday, and the price of gas averaged $3.60 a gallon in the United States.
It had been two months since Bush's last solo news conference with reporters.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.