- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 24, 2007

President Bush pleaded with Congress last night to give his new strategy for victory in the struggle in Iraq a chance because “America must not fail in Iraq.”

Defeat in Iraq, he said, would be “grievous and far-reaching” because the fighting in Iraq is part of a broader struggle against Islamic extremists across the Middle East and stretching to the farther reaches of the globe.

He proposed wide-ranging domestic goals in his 50-minute State of the Union address, proposing to balance the budget with no new taxes over the next five years, slash gasoline consumption by 20 percent over the next 10 years, double the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to 1.5 billion barrels of oil over the next 20 years, offer tax benefits for Americans who buy their own health insurance, create a “temporary worker program” as the first step in comprehensive immigration reform and “remain a clear voice for freedom” in Cuba, Belarus and Burma.

The domestic goals were relatively modest, but the president was at his most impassioned in arguing that the war in Iraq must not be abandoned.

America faces “a generational struggle that will continue long after you and I have turned our duties over to others,” he said. “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.”

Democrats, who now control both the House and the Senate, sat quietly as Republicans stood in a raucous ovation when the president declared “nothing is more important at this moment in our history than for America … to succeed in Iraq.” Vice President Dick Cheney often stood to applaud as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi remained seated, unsmiling.

Mr. Bush avoided a focus on major initiatives on contentious matters that divide the two parties, as he did in 2005, for example, when he made major Social Security reform a central theme of his speech, only to see it fail.

He focused instead on Democrat-friendly issues, calling on Congress to enact 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 in the next fiscal year.

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 resolutions of opposition to the president’s plan, quickly repeated their opposition in the wake of the speech.

“The president took us into this war recklessly,” said Sen. James H. Webb of Virginia, who has been in office less than a month, 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.”

The president urged Congress to unite in the struggle against international terrorism as Americans did in the days after the September 11 terrorist attacks.

“We went into this largely united — in our assumptions and in our convictions. And whatever you voted for, you did not vote for failure. Our country is pursuing a new strategy in Iraq, and I ask you to give it a chance to work,” Mr. Bush said. “And I ask you to support our troops in the field, and those on their way.”

Mr. Bush acknowledged that terrorists have made inroads across the Middle East and said 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 the United States cannot withdraw.

“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. 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.”

Mr. Bush sought at several points to soothe harsh partisan feelings, opening his address by noting the ascendancy of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the first woman to head either chamber of Congress.

It was “high privilege and distinct honor,” he said, 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.

At that moment, Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones, Ohio Democrat, flexed her arms in the boxer’s stance, as Mrs. Pelosi did at her swearing-in week.

After a rare round of bipartisan applause, Mr. Bush reached out to Democrats, challenging the new majority to work with Republicans to get things done.

“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.

Mr. Bush urged the congressmen to increase funding for his signature No Child Left Behind Act and reconsider school 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, he noted — and vowed to erase the federal deficit within five years.

Mr. Bush won far more applause from Democrats than from Republicans when he called for a “comprehensive” immigration bill and when he called for action to combat global warming. The entire Democratic side of the room stood for both, while many Republicans remained sitting and some of them shook their heads in seeming dismay.

Cameras in the chamber cut away to Rep. Tom Tancredo, the Colorado Republican who leads the House immigration caucus. Mr. Tancredo shook his head “no.”

The biggest applause line of the night for Mr. Bush among Republicans was his call for an up-or-down vote in the Senate on his judicial nominees. But on the Democratic side just two stood — Sens. Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats.

Mr. Bush made only a brief undetailed call for reform of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. “Somehow we have not found it in ourselves to act,” he said. “So let us work together and do it now.”

One Republican-friendly feature of previous State of the Union addresses was notably absent. Mr. Bush made no mention of efforts to amend the Constitution against homosexual “marriage” by defining the union as joining a man and a woman.

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.

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.

Another major initiative in Mr. Bush’s speech called for tax breaks for employer-financed health care benefits, analogous to the current child allowance. Instead of paying for health insurance with wages that already had been taxed, persons could pay for a significant part of their health insurance — $15,000 per family and $7,500 for individuals — with pre-tax dollars.

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 again yesterday that he would work to keep vouchers out of the education law.

• Stephen Dinan contributed to this report.

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