Archive for Wednesday, January 24, 2007

New political tone set

Bush reaches out to Democrats on domestic issues and Iraq

January 24, 2007

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— Facing dismal approval ratings and skeptical Democratic majorities, President Bush urged Congress on Tuesday to work with him on critical domestic issues and give his latest Iraq plan "a chance," saying that "we can work through our differences and achieve big things for the American people."

In his first State of the Union address since the Republican Party lost the House and Senate, Bush offered new proposals aimed at reducing the number of people without health insurance and cutting the amount of gasoline that Americans consume.

Acknowledging a "government divided and uncertainty in the air," the president sought to jump-start a domestic agenda that has been stalled since his 2004 re-election. Bush also sought once more to restore popular support for his unpopular course in Iraq, which faces opposition not just from Democrats in Congress but a growing number of Republicans.

"Our country is pursuing a new strategy in Iraq - and I ask you to give it a chance to work," Bush said.

Congress this week begins debating resolutions opposing the president's troop increase.

On the domestic side, Bush renewed past calls on Congress to approve sweeping immigration reforms, tackle the looming problem of entitlement spending and reauthorize his signature education law, No Child Left Behind.

But the two key initiatives involved energy and health care.

Bush is proposing major changes in how the tax code treats health insurance. On the one hand, the government would begin taxing the health care benefits that workers receive from their employers. On the other hand, all taxpayers would receive a new standard deduction for health care of $7,500 per individual and $15,000 per family.

The end result would be a savings of up to several thousand dollars a year for those who don't get insurance through an employer and a tax incentive for the uninsured to purchase it on their own.

But it also would mean a tax increase for some workers with more generous plans because the new deduction won't be big enough in all cases to cover the new taxes on employer health care subsidies. The administration said that about 80 percent of those who get health care through their employers - more than 100 million American adults and children - would come out financially ahead.

Bush's other health care proposal outlined Tuesday would shift some federal payments for health providers to states to help cover those without insurance. The plan's outlook in Congress is highly uncertain, with some Democrats and advocacy groups already denouncing it in favor of other approaches to expanding coverage.

Energy ideas

On energy, Bush set an ambitious goal of reducing gasoline usage by 20 percent over projected levels in the next 10 years. The president offered two proposals to make that happen. One dramatically raises the mandate for the use of ethanol and other alternative fuels. The other involves requiring improved fuel efficiency in passenger cars.

Rather than asking Congress to raise the average minimum mileage of the automotive fleet, Bush wants his transportation secretary to have the authority to mandate improved mileage for cars according to their size.

"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. It is in our vital interest to diversify America's energy supply," said Bush, who added that "technological breakthroughs" would "help us to confront the serious challenge of global climate change."

Bush also called for doubling the capacity of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve.

In terms of tone, rhetoric and certainly circumstance, Tuesday's speech was a departure from Bush's previous State of the Union addresses.

There was a greater acknowledgement of problems abroad. While just a year ago, Bush declared that "we are winning" in Iraq, this time the president said, "It is still within our power to shape the outcome of this battle."

There was a less challenging and more solicitous tone toward Democratic opponents.

"I respect you and the arguments you have made," Bush told Democratic lawmakers, while congratulating them on the 2006 election.

Embodying this change in circumstance, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the first woman to hold that job, sat behind Bush in a spot occupied in all the previous years of this presidency by Republican Dennis Hastert. Bush made a point at the outset of his speech of recognizing that historic first, terming himself the first president privileged to utter the words, "Madam Speaker."

Bush aides say the speech represents an effort to focus on big issues that are important to both sides and that offer the possibility of common ground. Behind that lies the hope that despite his political weakness, Bush can strike a course between conceding too much to Congress and fighting over everything.

Bush went into the speech at or near his all-time lows in popularity, depending on the poll. In a national Gallup survey taken Jan. 15 to 18, only 36 percent approved of his job performance. Bush's ratings from previous Januaries were 43 percent in 2006, 51 percent in 2005, 53 percent in 2004, 58 percent in 2003 and 84 percent in 2002, after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Some of Bush's domestic proposals face better odds than others. Despite floundering last year, the president's immigration proposals enjoy an improved outlook because real common ground exists between Bush and many Democrats on providing illegal immigrants who meet certain conditions a path to legal status.

Military strength

In the speech, Bush requested an overall increase of 92,000 men and women in the active Army and Marine Corps. He called for an advisory council on the war on terror made up of congressional leaders from both parties.

As he has done on many occasions over the past several years, he used his speech to take stock of the nation's efforts in fighting terrorism and to describe the fight, the enemy and the stakes.

"This war is more than a clash of arms - it is a decisive ideological struggle, and the security of our nation is in the balance," said Bush, who termed the war in Iraq a focal point in a much broader conflict. He said withdrawing would produce a "nightmare scenario" for the United States of chaos and safe haven for terrorists.

"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.

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