Congressional response is predictably partisan

Strong message on Iraq widely lauded

Democrats lambaste economic plans

January 29, 2003|By Julie Hirschfeld Davis | Julie Hirschfeld Davis,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Leaders in both parties cheered President Bush last night for what they called a strong and measured message on Iraq in his State of the Union address, even as Democrats attacked him bitterly for domestic policies they said were wrong-headed.

Republicans met Bush with an exuberant roar as he took the podium in a packed House chamber shortly after 9 o'clock last night, while more skeptical Democrats gave him respectful applause.

Those responses held later on in the evening after the speech, as Bush's Republican allies rallied strongly behind both his international and domestic proposals, and Democrats carefully raised questions about going to war with Iraq while opposing him at nearly every turn on his economic and health care proposals.

"The president challenged us to enact an agenda as ambitious as this nation is great," said Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican.

Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, a Southern Maryland Democrat who is his party's No. 2 House leader, said Bush's comments on Iraq "were extremely important" in making the case to the American people for a war to disarm Saddam Hussein, and Hoyer praised his decision to go to the United Nations on Feb. 5 to consult with members on how to proceed.

"I share the view that Hussein has not complied with countless U.N. resolutions, and we must decide in concert with our allies how to address this menace," Hoyer said.

But he also called Bush's economic plan "deja `voodoo economics' all over again," joining other Democratic leaders in arguing that the president's rhetoric on pressing domestic issues did not match his actions.

"There's a huge gap here between the rhetoric and the reality on the economy," said Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, a Maryland Democrat.

Republicans, too, raised concerns about Bush's Iraq policy. Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett of Western Maryland said Bush made a strong case, but Bartlett voiced "grave concerns" about the United States unilaterally attacking Iraq.

"I hope that I can be as fond of [Bush's] Iraq policy as I am of him, and I will sleep well tonight with the hope that he will act wisely with the counsel of all of his advisers," said Bartlett, a member of the Armed Services Committee.

Senior Republicans whose support Bush needs to push his domestic agenda through Congress have raised grave concerns about some marquee points Bush touched on in his speech, including portions of his economic plan and his sweeping proposal for Medicare reform.

Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the chairman of the Finance Committee, said he opposes Bush's plan to provide a prescription drug benefit under Medicare - the government health program for the elderly - by requiring that seniors join a private managed care health plan.

Under Bush's proposal, which he is expected to outline more fully in a speech today, seniors would have to leave the traditional fee-for-service Medicare program and join a private health plan in order to receive prescription drug coverage.

Grassley said he would not support a proposal that told seniors they had to leave the 37-year-old government program in order to obtain outpatient medicines.

Seniors "tend to have a great deal of cynicism about government, and they're going to be very, very nervous if you talk about that they have to do something else if they want prescription drugs," Grassley said. "I don't want them to have to go into a new [health plan] just to get prescription drugs."

At the same time, some Republicans have expressed doubts about the centerpiece of Bush's economic growth plan: a $374 billion plan to eliminate the tax shareholders pay on corporate dividends.

Rep. Bill Thomas of California, the chairman of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, told reporters Monday that he is concerned the dividend proposal could have unintended consequences in the securities markets.

Moderate Republicans in the Senate, whose support is necessary to move any tax cut through that chamber, already have raised concerns about the dividend proposal, saying its sheer size makes them reluctant to support it.

Still, reaction to the speech fell, for the most part, along predictably partisan lines. Republicans said Bush laid out clear, concise and convincing arguments on the pressing issues of the day - the case for going to war with Iraq, for reforming Medicare and for a deep tax cut to spur economic growth - while Democrats said his proposals would not solve the nation's problems.

Sen. Don Nickles, the Oklahoma Republican who chairs the Budget Committee, heaped praise on Bush's economic plan: "These are very positive, very pro-growth, pro-family changes that he is saying that we can help make our economy grow better and help American families in the meantime. So I'm excited about that proposal."

Democratic leaders, for their part, began an early assault on Bush's domestic agenda last week, when Minority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota declared at a speech in Cleveland that "the state of our union today is anxious."

Daschle and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California broadened their criticism in a joint appearance Monday in Washington where they pre-empted Bush's speech with challenges to his approaches to the crises in Iraq and North Korea, as well as his domestic plans.

"The triple threat of war, terrorism and recession are combining to make Americans unsure about their future and unclear about the course our nation is taking," Daschle said.

Daschle said Bush must close a "credibility gap" he has created by talking about popular priorities without spending the money necessary to address them.

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