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Bush touches on wide range of concerns

By Times Wires
© St. Petersburg Times
published July 31, 2003

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President Bush's session with reporters in the Rose Garden on Wednesday was his first full news conference since March 6 and his ninth since taking office. By comparison, Bill Clinton had held 33 formal news conferences at a comparable point in his administration; Bush's father had had 61.

Highlights of his remarks on a range of topics:

GAY MARRIAGE: "Between a man and a woman'

President Bush on Wednesday spurned calls to legalize same-sex marriages and declared for the first time that the legal protections of marriage should apply only to the union of a man and woman.

What he said was short, but it caused a big stir:

"I am mindful that we're all sinners. And I caution those who may try to take the speck out of the neighbor's eye when they've got a log in their own.

"I think it's very important for our society to respect each individual, to welcome those with good hearts, to be a welcoming country.

"On the other hand, that does not mean that somebody like me needs to compromise on an issue such as marriage. And that's really where the issue is headed here in Washington, and that is the definition of marriage. I believe in the sanctity of marriage. I believe a marriage is between a man and a woman. And I think we ought to codify that one way or the other. And we've got lawyers looking at the best way to do that."

The reaction was swift.

"There is a real movement for same-sex marriage, and if the president doesn't intervene, and if he doesn't take leadership in this area, we could lose marriage in this country the way we know it," said Franklin Graham, president of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and the son of the Rev. Billy Graham. "I think the president is doing the right thing."

Gay-rights activists took offense at Bush's comment that "we're all sinners," interpreting the remark as directed at them.

"While we respect President Bush's religious views, it is unbecoming of the president of the United States to characterize same-sex couples as "sinners,"' said Matt Foreman, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force's executive director.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Bush was not singling out homosexuals as sinners.

"The president doesn't believe in casting stones. He believes we ought to treat one another with dignity and respect," McClellan said.

The Human Rights Campaign, which says it is the nation's largest gay and lesbian political group, called Bush's exploration of a law on gay marriage a "call to codify discrimination."

In 1996, President Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act, which denied federal recognition of same-sex marriages and allowed states to ignore same-sex unions licensed elsewhere. Bush's aides have said they are studying ways to strengthen the law.

"We ask the president to explain to the American people why DOMA does not already meet the objective he set this morning," the Human Rights Campaign said.

Polls show a nation deeply divided on the issue, with a small majority against gay marriage and about 40 percent of Americans favoring it.

IRAQ: "We're on the hunt'

Bush said the deaths of Saddam Hussein's two sons last week will bring "changes in attitudes in Iraq" and reinforce the reality that Hussein's government is "gone forever."

"I don't know how close we are to getting Saddam Hussein. You know - it's closer than it was yesterday, I guess. All I know is we're on the hunt."

As for the continuing attacks on U.S. troops, Bush appealed for patience at home as Iraqis try to form a new, free society, saying, "I didn't expect Thomas Jefferson to emerge in Iraq in a 90-day period."

He said the United States must sort through "literally miles of documents" to learn the truth of whether Hussein had ties to al-Qaida, as Bush has alleged, and details about its weapons programs. "We've been there for 90 days," he said.

The president did not promise that weapons of mass destruction would be found in Iraq. Bush had earlier said with certainty that such weapons would be found but spoke instead Wednesday of a "weapons program" rather than actual weapons.

"I'm confident that our search will yield that which I strongly believe, that Saddam had a weapons program," he said.

Bush also stood behind national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, who has come under criticism in connection with the State of the Union speech and events leading to the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

"Dr. Condoleezza Rice is an honest, fabulous person, and America is lucky to have her service. Period," he said.

TAX CUTS: "Our economy is growing'

Bush said he will not change his strategy for dealing with a sluggish economy and expressed confidence that the steps his administration has taken, including three tax cuts, will begin paying off.

He told reporters he had "a lot of obstacles to overcome" in dealing with the economy. The nation entered into a recession in March 2001, his second month in office, engaged in a costly war against terrorism and then faced a series of corporate scandals that created "a lack of confidence in the system."

"And yet," Bush said, "our economy is growing.

"There are hopeful signs. I mean, most economists believe over the next 18 months we'll see positive economic growth. Interest rates are low, housing starts are strong, manufacturing indexes are improving."

Although the budget deficit is projected to hit a record $455-billion this year, and grow further in 2004, Bush said the administration is making "good progress toward deficit reduction" through a plan expected to cut the red ink in half during the next five years.

The deficit, Bush said, would have mounted even if there had been no tax cuts, although not to the degree the nation is facing.

"So given the fact that we're in a recession, which had it gone on longer than it did could have caused even more revenues to be lost to the treasury, I had a policy decision to make," Bush said. "And I made the decision to address the recession by a tax cut. And so part of the deficit, no question, was caused by taxes."

A LITTLE ON A LOT: From campaign to Liberia

Bush also:

- Signaled that prescription drug coverage under Medicare is a priority. "It's absolutely essential that the House and the Senate resolve their differences and enact a piece of legislation I can sign," he said.

- Defended efforts to raise at least $170-million for a primary election next year in which he faces no GOP opponent and suggested he'll find ways to spend it. "Watch me," he said. "Since I've made the decision to run, of course, I'm going to do what candidates do," said Bush, who has six fundraising events scheduled in August.

- Renewed his commitment to spending $15-billion over five years to combat AIDS in Africa and the Caribbean.

- Said sending U.S. troops into Liberia is still contingent on President Charles Taylor's stepping aside and the establishment of a cease-fire that can hold. Then, "the troop strength will be limited and the time frame will be limited," he said.

- Said he still believes a Palestinian state can be established by 2005. "I do think it's realistic. ... I think we're making pretty good progress in a short period of time," he said.

- Again called for a multilateral approach to North Korea and its admitted nuclear weapons program. He said that he again discussed the issue with Chinese President Hu Jintao and that Japan and South Korea should also get involved in negotiations.

- Steered clear of the campaign to recall Democratic California Gov. Gray Davis, saying it was an issue for the state's voters.

- Information from the Associated Press, Knight Ridder News Service, Cox News Service and the Washington Post was used in this report.

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