Bush's new agenda reaches across aisle
By BILL ADAIR
Published January 24, 2007
President George W. Bush shakes hands with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi before delivering his State of the Union address at the U.S. Capitol in Washington.
WASHINGTON - President Bush did the talking Tuesday night, but it was clear the Democrats were setting the tone.
With newly elected House Speaker Nancy Pelosi peering over his shoulder, Bush delivered a State of the Union address that signaled a strategy shift by a White House that can no longer set the agenda in Congress. With Democrats in charge, Bush offered a grab-bag of domestic ideas designed for more bipartisan appeal.
While the president showed no signs of yielding to the Democrats - and Republicans - who oppose his plan to add 21,500 troops in Iraq, he struck a more cooperative tone with several of his domestic proposals.
He said new energy technologies would "help us to confront the serious challenge of global climate change," an issue largely identified with the Democrats. He vowed to cut gasoline consumption by 20 percent in the next 10 years through better fuel efficiency and more biofuels. And he proposed new tax rules to help people buy their own health insurance.
He began the speech by honoring Pelosi, the first female speaker of the House, and said he would work with her party.
"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," Bush said in the 49-minute speech. "Our job is to make life better for our fellow Americans, and to help them to build a future of hope and opportunity."
Bush knows he needs the Democrats to accomplish virtually anything in the final two years of his presidency, just as the Democrats need his signature on their own initiatives. Although they grumbled about parts of his speech, they promised to take a serious look at his proposals.
Sen. Jim Webb, a freshman Democrat from Virginia, noted that Bush had made similar pledges about energy in his previous State of the Union speeches. But Webb said his party is open to ideas that would free the nation from its dependence on foreign oil.
"We look forward to working with the president and his party to bring about these changes," Webb said.
One exception to the bipartisan tone on domestic issues was Bush's renewed proposal to give private-school vouchers to poor students, an idea Democrats were criticizing hours before Bush's motorcade pulled up at the Capitol. The proposal is likely to go nowhere in Congress.
About half of the president's speech was dedicated to foreign policy, with Bush emphasizing the need to add U.S. troops in Iraq. He portrayed the Iraq war as an important part of the global war against terrorism and warned of dire consequences if American forces left too soon.
"We could expect an epic battle between Shia extremists backed by Iran, and Sunni extremists aided by al-Qaida and supporters of the old regime. A contagion of violence could spill out across the country - and in time the entire region could be drawn into the conflict," he said.
For America, he said, that was "a nightmare scenario."
Bush's plan has run into strong opposition from Democrats and a surprising number of Republicans. Bush faces the possibility that Congress could take a symbolic vote against his plan, or even prevent him from spending money for the additional troops.
The other half of his speech offered the usual laundry list of proposals on everything from immigration he called for "serious, civil, and conclusive debate" to the looming problems with Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. ("It is our duty to keep them permanently sound.")
He called for tax changes to encourage people not covered by health insurance to be able to afford a plan. Under his proposal, employer-financed health care benefits would be considered taxable income after a deduction of $15,000 for families and $7,500 for individuals. Those buying their own plan would get the same deductions.
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. But about 20 percent would see a tax increase - those workers whose health insurance costs more than the standard deduction.
Bush, an oilman who has consistently supported the agenda of the oil industry, said he would reduce gasoline consumption by 15 percent through increased use of "green" biofuels and another 5 percent by setting higher fuel efficiency requirements for auto manufacturers.
Both can be accomplished if the administration really means business, experts said, but they questioned whether the president will put his money where his mouth is.
Critics say the president's words on clean energy have not been matched by action. While there has been new research and development funding for biofuels, solar and wind energy, it has often been at the expense of other renewable energy programs.
"Are we going to have a Manhattan Project for biofuels, or are we going to have a Band-Aid?" asked Mark Emalfarb, president of Dyadic, a Jupiter firm among the leaders in developing enzymes for cellulosic ethanol. "Are we are going to cut our addiction to foreign oil in the next five years - or the next 30 years?"
In proposing to import biofuels, Bush appeared to be following a suggestion made by his brother Jeb Bush during his last year as Florida governor.
Environmentalists welcomed President Bush's brief reference to climate change but were disappointed by the absence of government action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Bush continues to prefer a free-market approach where private businesses are left to take their own voluntary steps.
Still, his comments on global warming reflected growing momentum for federal action.
Democratic leaders said after the speech that they were frustrated by his comments on Iraq but encouraged by the bipartisan spirit on other issues.
"It is long past time to stop talking about our problems," Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said in a joint statement, "and start working to solve them."
Times staff writer David Adams contributed to this report, which used information from the Associated Press. Bill Adair can be reached at email@example.com or (202) 463-0575.
[Last modified January 24, 2007, 00:34:31]
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