President Bush to Challenge Chinese to Support Religious Freedom
WASHINGTON – President Bush defended the awarding Wednesday of the nation's top civilian honor to the Dalai Lama, the exiled religious leader of Tibet, and said that he will challenge Chinese leaders to support religious freedom during the award ceremony.
"I admire the Dalai Lama a lot. ... I support religious freedom," Bush said in a short-notice press conference at the White House.
Bush also said he had personally spoken with Chinese President Hu Jintao to say he would be attending the Congressional Gold Medal ceremony for the Dalai Lama, and Bush said the Chinese would be better off having diplomatic relations with the Tibetan leader.
"I have consistently told the Chinese that religious freedom is in their nation's interest. I've also told them that I think it's in their interest to meet with the Dalai Lama and will say so at the ceremony today in Congress," Bush said.
"If they were to sit down with the Dalai Lama they would find him to be a man of peace and reconciliation. And I think it's in the country's interest to allow him to come to China and meet with him," he added.
The conference ended less than two hours before the president was set to attend the ceremony in the Capitol Rotunda where the Dalai Lama will receive the Congressional Gold Medal. The Dalai Lama is Tibet's top Buddhist leader. He is fighting for Tibetan autonomy from the Chinese government, and his warm reception this week in Washington, which also included a private Oval Office meeting, has riled Chinese officials.
Bush opened the conference by calling on Congress to act quickly on resolving problems with a children's health care program and other domestic issues, and than addressed a number of international issues involving Turkey, China, Russia, Iran, Syria and North Korea.
Bush sparred with reporters, refusing to answer questions about a situation in which Syrian officials are alleged to be working with North Koreans on developing a nuclear program.
Bush first took aim at Congress' attempt to override his veto on the State Children's Health Insurance Program, which he predicted would fail.
"Now it's time to put politics aside and seek common ground to reauthorize this important program," Bush said.
The president has vetoed the State Children's Health Insurance Program handed to him by Congress, but a bipartisan effort is threatening to override the veto Thursday. Shaky support in the House could ensure the president's will. The plan would increase spending by $35 million over five years, but Bush has said it is a step toward socialized medicine.
The president mentioned a list of items, calling on Congress to act quickly on the budget, housing and trade, veterans issues and others. He also called for the Senate to act quickly on nominating and confirming his pick for attorney general, Michael Mukasey, as well as a number of open federal judgeships.
The president has issued veto threats on 11 of 12 of the spending bills that Congress must pass to fund the federal government. The fiscal year began Oct. 1, but Congress has passed a stop-gap measure that keeps funding levels stable until the appropriations bills are finalized.
White House press secretary Dana Perino said the president will try to push Congress to finish its work.
"We are halfway through the month of October and there's been nine months of this Congress and there hasn't been a lot of legislation that has come to the president's desk," Perino said. "The president is going to call on this Congress to get some of these priority matters completed on behalf of the American citizens."
"There's a lot of work they could get done that they aren't getting done," Perino said.
Bush also disagrees with Democrats over an update to the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. The president would like to ensure that telecommunication companies who assisted government efforts to track down terrorists are protected from lawsuits. The House was expected to vote on the measure Wednesday, and the White House has threatened to veto the bill unless substantive changes are made.
The intelligence bill also allows unfettered surveillance of foreign targets but requires special authorization if the foreign targets are likely to be in contact with people inside the United States — an effort to safeguard Americans' privacy.
Bush also called on Congress to renew and fully fund his signature No Child Left Behind education program.
"As we saw from the recent nation's report card, the No Child Left Behind Act is getting results for America's children. Test scores are rising. The achievement gap is beginning to close. And Congress should send me a bipartisan bill that reauthorizes and strengthens this effective piece of legislation," Bush said.
Bush also strongly came out against a proposal that would label killings of Armenians during World War I as "genocide."
"One thing Congress should not be doing is sorting out the historical record of the Ottoman Empire," Bush said.
The measure was in jeopardy after several Democrats withdrew their support and sounded alarms that passage of such a resolution could cripple U.S. relations with Turkey.
Bush also said he was opposed to Turkey's possible military offensive against Kurdish rebels in northern Iraq.
"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, shortly before Turkey's parliament approved a possible cross-border offensive.
Bush also defended his style of dealing with Vladimir Putin as the Russian president works to expand his control on power, but reserved judgment over the Russian leader's recent meeting with the firebrand Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Bush said he can speak frankly with Putin, and "that's good diplomacy."
Putin is maneuvering to maintain influence and remain in power after his term ends next year. "I have no idea what he's going to do," said Bush.
Bush said that when he saw Putin in Australia last month at an international conference, he tried to get the Russian leader to talk about his plans. "And he was wily. He wouldn't tip his hand."
Bush said that despite Putin's meeting with Ahmadinejad, he would wait to hear about the meeting from Putin, with whom White House relations have cooled, particularly over a missile defense program that would be stationed in Eastern Europe.
Putin has been quoted in press reports issuing a stern warning to the United States against using military action against Iran, and says he does not believe there is a serious Iranian nuclear threat.
"If those are, in fact, his comments, I look forward to having him (Putin) clarify those. Because when I visited with him, he understands that it's in the world's interests to make sure that Iran does not have the capacity to make a nuclear weapon," Bush said.
"I mean, if he wasn't concerned about it, then why do we have such good progress at the United Nations in round one and round two?" the president added.
The president also said it was important for Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice — who is on a diplomatic mission to the Middle East — to help Israelis and Palestinians make progress leading to a scheduled upcoming peace conference in Annapolis, Md.
"The Palestinians that have been made promises all these years need to see there's a serious focused effort" to set up a Palestinian state, he said.
FOX News' Wendell Goler, Brett Baier and The Associated Press contributed to this report.