By Jim VandeHei
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 29, 2006
President Bush yesterday said "The Star-Spangled Banner" should be sung in English, not Spanish, and condemned plans by some immigrant groups to stage a work protest on Monday to sway the debate over the nation's immigration laws.
With passions running high over the release of "Nuestro Himno," a Spanish-language version of the national anthem, Bush told reporters that people who want to be citizens of the United States should learn English and "ought to learn to sing the national anthem in English."
He called on immigrants and activist groups to rethink plans to walk out of work on Monday in protest of congressional efforts to crack down on illegal immigration. "You know, I think it's very important for people, when they do express themselves, they continue to do so in a peaceful way, in a respectful way -- respectful of . . . how highly charged this debate can become," he said, in a Rose Garden news conference he called to tout new figures showing robust economic growth in the first quarter of this year.
In answers that ranged widely over problems confronting him at home and overseas, Bush urged Sudan to let more multinational peacekeeping forces into the country to help halt what he called genocide in the Darfur region.
The Sudanese government opposes a plan to send 20,000 United Nations peacekeepers into the country. Bush, who has been criticized for not intervening more effectively, has proposed sending a U.N. force into Darfur to assist the estimated 7,000 African Union soldiers battling tribal and ethnic violence.
"My message to [Sudan] is we expect there to be full compliance with the international desire for there to be peace in the Darfur region," Bush said. "We're very serious about getting this problem solved."
Later in the day, Bush met with a diverse group of Sudan advocates. Large "Save Darfur" rallies are planned tomorrow in Washington and in other U.S. cities.
Bush also rejected calls by lawmakers, including some Republicans, to tax oil company profits to help reduce gas prices, but he said the companies should consider investing some of their record profits to reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil. "These oil prices are a wake-up call," Bush said. "We're dependent on oil. We need to get off oil."
Less than a week after ordering price-fixing investigations, Bush said he has no proof that companies are overcharging consumers for gasoline. "I have no evidence that there is any rip-off taking place," he said.
The president held the news conference to trumpet reports of strong economic growth and low unemployment, but was deluged with questions about high gas prices, which aides partly blame for his sagging popularity. A new Wall Street Journal-NBC poll shows Bush's approval rating at 36 percent and indicates he is being blamed for high gas prices and economic anxiety.
Of the positive economic data, Bush, flanked by his top two economic advisers, said, "This good news cannot be taken for granted." The economy grew at 4.8 percent in the last quarter, the fastest rate in more than two years.
Bush this week called for a series of policy changes to slow the rise in gas prices, but indicated he did not have any regrets about not more aggressively pursuing changes, such as a large increase in fuel economy standards, during his first term. He has asked Congress for authority to study an increase in fuel economy standards for all cars, but officials caution that the president has not decided that such an increase is wise or necessary.
With the hurricane season about a month away, Bush reacted coolly to a bipartisan congressional plan to abolish the Federal Emergency Management Agency and replace it with a more powerful organization. He said it is important to focus on the storm season ahead.
"We're much more ready this time than last time. And we're taking very seriously the lessons learned from Katrina," he said. "I've looked at all suggestions, but my attitude is, let's make it work."
On the escalating conflict between Western nations and Iran, Bush cautioned that the United States is in the early stages of using diplomacy to keep Tehran from becoming a nuclear power. He spoke shortly after the International Atomic Energy Agency reported that Iran has enriched uranium, and after Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in his latest defiant stand, said the U.N. Security Council could not make Iran give up its nuclear program.
The world, Bush said, "is united and concerned about their desire to have not only a nuclear weapon but the capacity to make a nuclear weapon or the knowledge to make a nuclear weapon."
But it was immigration -- an issue that has sharply divided his party on Capitol Hill and in many regions of the country -- on which Bush had to tread most delicately.
The president renewed his call for changes in the immigration system that would provide tighter border security and better enforcement of current laws, and provide the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants living in the United States with a pathway to citizenship.
To prevail on what Republicans consider the biggest domestic issue of the year, Bush is trying to appeal both to conservative activists who oppose amnesty for illegal immigrants and to the fast-growing Hispanic population, which is demanding comprehensive changes with a citizenship option. With Congress locked in heated debate over the issue, Bush is pushing for a middle-ground deal that would allow illegal immigrants a chance at citizenship, but only if they pay a stiff penalty, learn English and go to "the back of the line," as he put it at yesterday's appearance.
On the national anthem controversy, Bush, who speaks Spanish, was pulled into the debate after British music producer Adam Kidron released the Spanish version yesterday. Kidron said he wanted to honor U.S. immigrants.
In a statement released after Bush spoke, Kidron said: "The intention of recording 'Nuestro Himno' (Our Anthem) has never been to discourage immigrants from learning English and embracing American culture."