Bush defends Iraq plan, asks for chance
WASHINGTON – President George W. Bush urged a rebellious Congress on Tuesday to give his new Iraq war plan a chance and insisted in his State of the Union speech it is not too late to shape the outcome.
Facing skeptical lawmakers and some of the weakest approval ratings of his six years in office, Bush said the best chance for success is to send 21,500 more U.S. troops to Iraq.
«On this day, at this hour, it is still within our power to shape the outcome of the battle. Let us find our resolve, and turn events toward victory,» Bush said.
He did not back down even as Democrats and his own Republicans work on nonbinding congressional resolutions expressing opposition to the plan he announced two weeks ago.
«Our country is pursuing a new strategy in Iraq — and I ask you to give it a chance to work,» Bush told the joint session of the U.S. Congress, the first time since he took office that he has faced a House of Representatives and Senate both controlled by Democrats.
With a Washington-Post/ABC News poll giving Bush a 33 percent approval rating, he faces a tough road ahead focusing America’s attention on domestic issues with Iraq dominating the debate.
He sought to push an agenda at home against a heavy tide of criticism over Iraq, calling climate change a «serious challenge» that he would address by reducing U.S. gasoline consumption by 20 percent over 10 years and increasing use of alternative fuels.
He also called for expanding health care for Americans, and creating a guest-worker program for illegal immigrants that could represent the best chance for a bipartisan agreement.
«Like many before us, we can work through our differences, and achieve big things for the American people,» Bush said.
In the audience of lawmakers, Cabinet officials, diplomats and Supreme Court justices were as many as 10 potential successors of both political parties jockeying for position to replace him.
A silence fell over the crowd as Bush reviewed the 2006 setbacks in Iraq. Some of the Iraq lines in his speech netted ovations only from Republicans.
Watching over his shoulder with a tight set to her jaw was the first woman speaker of the House, California Democrat Nancy Pelosi, who refused to stand and applaud during some sections of Bush’s Iraq remarks.
«Unfortunately, tonight the president demonstrated he has not listened to Americans’ single greatest concern: the war in Iraq,» she said in a joint statement with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat.
Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy said two of the best words he heard in Bush’s speech were «Madame Speaker.»
Bush rejected Democratic arguments for pulling American troops out of Baghdad. He said Iraq would be victim of an epic battle between Shi’ite and Sunni extremists and Iraq’s government would be overrun if U.S. forces step back before Baghdad is secure.
«This is not the fight we entered in Iraq, but it is the fight we are in,» he said.
‘NEW DIRECTION IN IRAQ’
In the Democratic response, Virginia Sen. Jim Webb, a recently elected Vietnam veteran, said «we need a new direction in Iraq,» a policy «that takes our soldiers off the streets of Iraq’s cities and a formula that will in short order allow our combat forces to leave Iraq.»
The energy proposals by Bush, who has frequently been accused by critics of ignoring global warming, fell short of seeking mandatory caps on carbon emissions sought by some Democrats as well as Europeans.
He would achieve his goal through improved vehicle fuel standards and an increase in production and use of alternative fuels like ethanol.
Bush was not pushing for a specific increase in the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards, which many experts see as critical to reduce oil usage but which the White House fears would prompt manufacturers to build smaller, less-safe cars.
Instead, he asked Congress for authority to reform CAFE standards for cars with the goal of reducing projected annual gasoline use by up to 8.5 billion gallons.
Bush believes the projected growth in carbon emissions from cars, light trucks and suburban utility vehicles could be stopped in 10 years under his plan.
New York Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer dismissed Bush’s proposal, saying «the quickest, most efficient way to reduce gas imports and bring down prices is to increase fuel economy standards.»
Bush’s health care plan — making health insurance taxable income and deductible up to $15,000 a year for families starting in 2009 — could raise taxes for as many as 30 million Americans but he says it would lower costs for many millions more.