WASHINGTON – Reacting to the president's State of the Union (search) address, Democrats hammered George W. Bush Tuesday night on the U.S.-led occupation in Iraq and the economy while Republicans defended the policies of their party leader.
"President Bush's State of the Union address failed to offer hope to the American people; instead, it was used as a platform to push extremist policies that blatantly ignore the challenges we face at home and abroad," said Rep. Robert Wexler (search), D-Fla.
"The state of our union is significantly worse than it was when President Bush gave his first State of the Union address, due largely to the Bush administration's failed and extreme tax, regulatory, and fiscal policies. It appears that it will take a new administration if we are to chart a course that will restore America's domestic economy and our international standing," said Rep. Edward J. Markey (search), D-Mass.
Bush received a warmer reception from lawmakers on the other side of the aisle.
"I was very excited about the president standing up for why we're in Iraq and about exporting democracy. I was very pleased when he said, 'You fool around with Medicare and I'll veto it.' I haven't seen a president be so direct before," said House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas.
Bush spoke hopefully about the economy, citing strong numbers -- pace of growth in the third quarter 2003 was the fastest in nearly 20 years, new home construction and home ownership rates hit record marks, low inflation and interest rates and high productivity have all contributed to economic strength.
Still, the budget is in deep deficit territory, which Republicans say is not a problem.
"We're getting back to near inflationary growth. I believe, and many others agree with me, that the way to get out of this deficit situation is to grow the economy. I don’t think you balance the budget by raising taxes," Rep. Roy Blunt (search), R-Mo., said in support of the president's actions.
Bush tried to blunt criticism of the rising deficits by promising to limit the growth of discretionary spending to 4 percent and cutting the deficit in half over the next five years. However, this pledge was not enough for some Democrats.
"Discretionary spending is up. It's up substantially. There's been no fiscal discipline. Fiscal discipline means paying for what you buy," said Rep. Steny Hoyer (search), D-Md., commenting on the president's track record.
A major theme of the president's speech was the war in Iraq in which he asked the American people for continued resolve and stressed the need to confront regimes that harbor and support terrorists. He also emphasized the importance of removing Saddam Hussein from power.
But Markey suggested that the removal of Saddam did not justify the war in Iraq
"Over 500 American troops have been killed in Iraq, thousands more permanently injured, with no end to our occupation yet in sight. Meanwhile, we don't appear to have been able to secure Afghanistan from Al Qaeda terrorists or their Taliban supporters. As the recent Orange Alert demonstrates, Usama bin Laden and his senior lieutenants are still at large and still planning further attacks on America," Markey said.
Bush said without American action, Saddam's weapons programs, which have been identified by the Kay Report (search) on weapons of mass destruction, would be continuing today. But Democrats said they have no proof in their hands that Saddam had a weapons program.
"Where are the Iraqi weapons of mass destruction that we were told about in last year's State of the Union address? Why did the administration put the war against Usama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda on the back-burner to pursue an unnecessary war against Iraq?" Markey asked.
Democrats also said Bush's ability to lead is on the line because of the failure to find weapons of mass destruction or bin Laden.
"The credibility gap was exacerbated by statements about weapons of mass destruction last year, and I think it's imperative if he's going to rebuild his own credibility, he needs to understand and rectify the misstatements made in the past," said Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (search) of South Dakota.
"The state of our union at home and abroad is weaker because of this president's arrogant and short-sighted domestic and international policies. America's global credibility is at an all-time low," Wexler said.
Although Bush said 34 nations committed troops to Iraq, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (search) of California criticized Bush's "go-it-alone foreign policy that leaves us isolated abroad and that steals the resources we need for education and health care here at home."
Bush also spent part of his speech discussing homeland security efforts, such as supplying domestic security personnel every tool they need and renewing the Patriot Act (search) for law enforcement efforts. But his opponents hit him for not discussing more funding for first responders.
"The administration has not fulfilled its pledge to keep Americans safe at home. The vast majority of our police, firefighters and emergency medical personnel do not have the protective gear, equipment or training they need to respond to a future terrorist attack. If the administration is serious about making our homeland secure, then they need to provide the resources needed to do it correctly," said Rep. Rubén Hinojosa (search), D-TX.
One of the few new initiatives in the speech was an announcement that Bush wants the Labor Department to administer $120 million in grants for community colleges to help workers pick up new job skills. He also proposed a program to help prisoners re-entering the workforce to get job training and pitched efforts to make health care more affordable to individuals and small businesses.
"Tonight, President Bush talked about how he wants to help people find jobs, but for three years he's stood by while we've lost more jobs than at any time since the Great Depression. He promised to create 250,000 jobs last month, but he's only created a thousand. We're 249,000 jobs short. Americans should be able to trust that what the president tells them is true," said presidential candidate John Kerry (search).
The president also discussed his new immigration proposal, which includes a temporary worker program that could end up giving 8 million illegal aliens the opportunity to stay in the country if they get employer sponsorship.
"Obviously, President Bush is serious about bringing some logic to our current immigration policy. I believe that the president wants to see responsible reform enacted as soon as possible," said Rep. Jeff Flake (search), R-AZ.
Bush also proposed a number of small new initiatives that received broad support from the audience.
"The things that I certainly did not expect, things like the steroids, the drugs, the athletes, the transitions from prisons--all of which clearly mean a whole lot to him--fill that whole category of compassion, of caring, of doing the unexpected," said Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (search), R-Tenn.
Calling the speech "mild," "understated" and "well-received," Sen. John Breaux (search), D-La., predicted mixed success for the initiatives the president announced.
"He talked about a couple of things we all know are not going to happen, like making the tax cuts permanent. Getting uninsured coverage this year is not going to happen," Breaux said.
"However, doing something about prisoners who get out of prison and now go right back in within a matter of weeks or a matter of months, I think that’s something you could have bipartisan support for."