Bush asks for time on plan for Iraq

Congress urged to work with him on energy, health

State Of The Union

January 24, 2007|By Julie Hirschfeld Davis | Julie Hirschfeld Davis,SUN REPORTER

WASHINGTON -- President Bush appealed to a recalcitrant Congress and an anxious public last night to give his Iraq troop increase a chance, seeking to revive his waning influence with plans to reduce gasoline usage and expand access to health coverage.

Bush offered a conciliatory tone and a suite of proposals on hot-button domestic issues for his first State of the Union before a Democratic Congress, one in which his aides said he was trying to be gracious and acknowledge a new dynamic on Capitol Hill.

"Congress has changed, but not our responsibilities," Bush said, after congratulating Democrats for their victories.

With his poll numbers sagging and war criticism swirling, the president called on Congress to work with him on issues of shared concern such as energy and health care. He renewed his calls for an immigration overhaul that would allow some illegal immigrants the chance to become citizens and a reauthorization of the "No Child Left Behind" education law.

"We are not the first to come here with government divided and uncertainty in the air. Like many before us, we can work through our differences and achieve big things for the American people," Bush said.

Singling out House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Bush said he had the "high privilege and distinct honor" of being the first president to begin his annual address with the words "Madam Speaker."

"In his day, the late Congressman Thomas D'Alesandro Jr., from Baltimore, Md., saw Presidents Roosevelt and Truman at this rostrum. But nothing could compare with the sight of his only daughter, Nancy, presiding tonight as speaker of the House of Representatives," Bush said, turning to clasp hands with a beaming Pelosi as he began his 50-minute speech.

But the specter of Iraq hung heavily over the speech, which came a day after House and Senate Republicans signaled grave reservations about Bush's 21,500 troop build-up, adding their skeptical voices to the nearly unanimous chorus of Democrats who oppose the move.

The president acknowledged the doubts - "I respect you, and the arguments you have made," he said - but he made it clear that he was not about to change his mind.

"Whatever you voted for, you did not vote for failure," Bush said. "Our country is pursuing a new strategy in Iraq, and I ask you to give it a chance to work."

Democrats tapped Sen. James Webb of Virginia, a Vietnam veteran who has been a vocal critic of Bush's war strategy, to give their official response. He had scathing criticism for the president, who he said "took us into this war recklessly" and had bungled every aspect of it and whom he blamed for presiding over an economy where "benefits are not being fairly shared" with the average worker.

Invoking the examples of Theodore Roosevelt and Dwight D. Eisenhower, two popular Republican presidents who he said took on steep economic and national security challenges, Webb called on Bush to turn things around on both fronts: "If he does, we will join him. If he does not, we will be showing him the way."

Republicans, for their part, said the president had provided a basis for bipartisan compromise on important issues.

Bush "outlined an agenda that addresses our nation's most pressing challenges and lays the groundwork for continued economic growth and prosperity," Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona, the Senate's No. 3 Republican, said in a statement.

The president "brought serious proposals to the table to begin the debate," Kyl added.

Rep. John A. Boehner of Ohio, the House Republican leader, said Bush had "laid out a series of ambitious proposals addressing the nation's priorities, and I hope Congress will give each a fair hearing. If Democrat leaders are going to oppose the president's agenda, they have an obligation to present their own alternatives."

Bush defended his choice to add troops amid raging sectarian violence in Baghdad and elsewhere in Iraq, first announced in a speech he gave two weeks ago from the White House.

"Our military commanders and I have carefully weighed the options. We discussed every possible approach," Bush said. "In the end, I chose this course of action because it provides the best chance for success."

He did not specifically mention the tangle of measures opposing the strategy that could come before Congress in the coming weeks and instead focused on articulating the stakes for Americans if the mission in Iraq were to fail, something he called a "nightmare scenario."

"Nothing is more important at this moment in our history than for America to succeed in the Middle East, to succeed in Iraq, and to spare the American people from this danger," Bush said.

Pelosi and Senate Majority Harry Reid of Nevada said they welcomed the bipartisan spirit in which Bush spoke but in a joint statement said he "continues to ignore the will of the country" on Iraq and promised an "up-or-down" vote on his plan.

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