- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 23, 2007

President Bush last night proposed modest goals in his State of the Union address to a Congress now controlled by Democrats, calling on Americans to slash their gasoline consumption by 20 percent in the next 10 years and urging lawmakers to support his new war strategy because “America must not fail in Iraq.”

With his approval ratings at an all-time low and a majority of Americans opposed to his plan of sending more than 21,000 U.S. troops into Iraq, the president laid out a far less ambitious agenda for the coming year.

Avoiding a focus on major initiatives on contentious issues such as Social Security — the centerpiece of his 2005 address, which went down in flames but was mentioned only in passing last night — Mr. Bush called for Congress to reach agreement on immigration reform this year, set up new health care tax breaks by 2009, increase the military by nearly 100,000 members in the next five years, double the Strategic Petroleum Reserve by 2027 and cut congressional earmarks in half this year.

Still, the focus of the president’s annual prime-time address to a joint session of Congress was again Iraq, and he made another pitch in his 50-minute speech for continuing the nearly four-year-old war, despite rising U.S. casualties that topped 3,000 last month.

As he did two weeks ago, the president said the only way to secure the war-torn country is to send in thousands of additional troops.

“Our military commanders and I have carefully weighed the options. We discussed every possible approach. In the end, I chose this course of action because it provides the best chance of success. Many in this chamber understand that America must not fail in Iraq — because you understand that the consequences of failure would be grievous and far-reaching,” he said.

Democrats, many of whom support proposed resolutions of opposition to the president’s plan, immediately spoke out in opposition to the president’s Iraq plan.

“The president took us into this war recklessly,” said Virginia Sen. James H. Webb, who delivered the Democratic response. “The majority of the nation no longer supports the way this war is being fought; nor does the majority of our military. We need a new direction,” including “strong regionally based diplomacy” and “a formula that will in short order allow our combat forces to leave Iraq.”

Mr. Bush acknowledged that terrorists have made inroads across the Middle East, and sectarian violence and insurgents have outstripped American forces in Iraq.

“This is not the fight we entered in Iraq, but it is the fight we are in. Every one of us wishes this war were over and won, yet it would not be like us to leave our promises unkept, our friends abandoned, and our own security at risk,” he said.

He said the United States simply cannot withdraw at this point.

“If American forces step back before Baghdad is secure, the Iraqi government would be overrun by extremists on all sides. For America, this is a nightmare scenario,” he said. “On this day, at this hour, it is still within our power to shape the outcome of this battle. So let us find our resolve, and turn events toward victory.”

Still, Mr. Bush sought to ease the partisan split, opening his address by noting the ascendancy of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the first woman to head either chamber of Congress.

He said it was “high privilege and distinct honor,” echoing Mrs. Pelosi’s words introducing him, to be the first president ever to start the address by thanking “Madame Speaker.” As the gathered lawmakers and officials gave a standing ovation, Mr. Bush turned from his lectern and shook Mrs. Pelosi’s hand.

His speech proper also reached out to Democrats.

“Congress has changed, but our responsibilities have not,” the president said. “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.”

Despite growing rancor between the two parties — Mrs. Pelosi last week accused the president of swiftly enacting his “surge” plan to prevent opponents on Capitol Hill from blocking the strategy, words the White House labeled “poisonous” — Mr. Bush said that “both parties and both branches should work in close consultation.”

“Our citizens don’t much care which side of the aisle we sit on — as long as we are willing to cross that aisle when there is work to be done,” he said.

In addition, Mr. Bush called on lawmakers to increase funding for his signature No Child Left Behind Act and reconsider vouchers, urging Congress to give “families with children stuck in failing schools the right to choose some place better.”

He repeated his rejection of new taxes, touted the booming economy — in its 41st straight month of job growth — and vowed to erase the federal deficit within five years.

Broadening the foreign-policy debate from Iraq to the global war on terror, Mr. Bush said America faces “a generational struggle that will continue long after you and I have turned our duties over to others. That is why it is important to work together so our nation can see this great effort through.”

“For all of us in this room, there is no higher responsibility than to protect the people of this country from danger. To win the war on terror, we must take the fight to the enemy. Both parties and both branches should work in close consultation,” Mr. Bush said.

To that end, the president proposed establishing a “special advisory council on the war on terror,” comprised of congressional leaders from both political parties.

“We will share ideas for how to position America to meet every challenge that confronts us. And we will show our enemies abroad that we are united in the goal of victory,” he said.

In keeping the tradition, one Cabinet member — last night it was Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales — did not attend the speech in case of a major attack on the Capitol.

With little chance of moving forward on major initiatives, the White House sought to highlight the president’s energy initiative, holding an afternoon briefing for reporters featuring senior administration officials and lifting the usual embargo on specific proposals in the address.

“It is in our vital interest to diversify America’s energy supply, and the way forward is through technology,” he said.

According to the president’s proposal, Americans could cut gasoline consumption by 20 percent within 10 years by sharply increasing the amount of ethanol and other alternative fuels that the government mandates must be blended into the fuel supply.

Under current law, fuel blenders must use 7.5 billion gallons of renewable fuel annually by 2012; Mr. Bush wants to increase that to 35 billion gallons by 2017, which would achieve a 15 percent cut. The president’s plan also calls for raising the fuel economy standards for passenger cars, a plan that Mr. Bush has proposed in the past but failed to win from Congress. Doing so would reduce annual gasoline consumption by 8.5 billion gallons, a further 5 percent reduction.

“Achieving these ambitious goals will dramatically reduce our dependence on foreign oil, but not eliminate it,” he said.

Mr. Bush, who last year declared in his State of the Union that Americans are “addicted to oil,” again urged lawmakers to move forward to reduce U.S. reliance on foreign petroleum.

“For too long, our nation has been dependent on foreign oil. And this dependence leaves us more vulnerable to hostile regimes, and to terrorists — who could cause huge disruptions of oil shipments, raise the price of oil and do great harm to our economy,” he said.

Another major initiative in Mr. Bush’s speech called for tax breaks for employer-financed health care benefits, analogous to the current child allowance.

The White House said 80 percent of workers with health insurance through their jobs would see a tax cut as a result of the change. Still, analysts say some 20 percent could see a tax increase, including those workers whose health insurance cost more than the standard deduction.

As evidence of the partisanship in the House, Rep. Pete Stark, California Democrat and chairman of the Ways and Means health subcommittee, said he would not even consider holding hearings on the plan.

Other proposals in Mr. Bush’s speech included a call for “new resources” to expand the No Child Left Behind education act, which requires testing in elementary and middle schools to make sure students are learning. The president wants to expand the program and is seeking to give poor students the right to private-school vouchers.

The administration’s proposal calls for giving vouchers to students in schools that repeatedly fail to meet standards set by the federal law, but Democrats blocked that idea when the bill was drafted five years ago.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat and new chairman of the Senate committee overseeing education, said he would work to keep vouchers out of the education law.

“We need new and creative ideas for helping our schools to improve and our students to succeed. Instead, the president has proposed more of the same,” Mr. Kennedy said yesterday. “Once again, he proposes siphoning crucial resources from our public schools.”

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