By Peter Baker and Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, January 24, 2007; A01
President Bush implored lawmakers and the nation last night to give him one more chance to win the war in Iraq and avoid the "nightmare scenario" of defeat while presenting a domestic agenda intended to find common cause with the new Democratic Congress on issues such as energy and immigration.
Politically wounded but rhetorically unbowed, Bush gave no ground on his decision to dispatch 21,500 more troops to Iraq despite a bipartisan cascade of criticism. Addressing for the first time a Congress controlled by the other party, Bush challenged Democrats to "show our enemies abroad that we are united in the goal of victory" and warned that the consequences of failure in Iraq "would be grievous and far-reaching."
"I respect you and the arguments you've made," Bush told skeptical lawmakers from both parties in his sixth State of the Union address and the fourth since the invasion of Iraq in March 2003. "We went into this largely united -- in our assumptions and in our convictions. And whatever you voted for, you did not vote for failure. Our country is pursuing a new strategy in Iraq, and I ask you to give it a chance to work."
With new House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) sitting behind him in a vivid sign of the power shift on Capitol Hill, Bush congratulated Democrats on their victory in the November elections and paid tribute to the first woman to serve in the nation's third-highest office. "Tonight, I have a high privilege and distinct honor of my own as the first president to begin the State of the Union message with these words: 'Madam Speaker,' " Bush said, then turned to shake Pelosi's hand as she beamed and lawmakers cheered.
The president further reached out to Democrats in the 49-minute speech with ideas to expand health-care coverage, overhaul immigration laws and improve education performance, ideas that he framed as efforts to provide "hope and opportunity," a phrase he used six times. In his most ambitious new proposal, he laid out a plan to reduce projected gasoline consumption in the United States by 20 percent over the next 10 years.
"Congress has changed, but not our responsibilities," Bush said. He added: "We're not the first to come here with a government divided and uncertainty in the air. Like many before us, we can work through our differences and achieve big things for the American people."
Yet his approach contrasted with the last two presidents to address an opposition Congress after their parties lost midterm elections. Ronald Reagan conceded "serious mistakes" in 1987, as did Bill Clinton in 1995. Clinton moved to the middle so conspicuously that the opposition leader who gave the official response noted that he "sounded pretty Republican." Although Bush acknowledged two weeks ago that "mistakes have been made" in Iraq, he appeared unchastened last night and took no responsibility for his party's defeat or errors in office.
Democrats seemed unimpressed by his latest governing blueprint and signaled that they are in no mood to meet him in the middle. Long before Bush arrived in the House chamber to deliver his remarks, Democratic leaders and allied interest groups rushed out statements blasting his domestic proposals as rehashed ideas, empty rhetoric or flawed concepts that would create other problems. But the divide between president and Congress was most inflamed by his leadership of a war that will soon enter its fifth year.
"The president took us into this war recklessly," said freshman Sen. James Webb (D-Va.), a former Marine who was tapped to give the formal response. Accusing Bush of disregarding warnings by national security experts before invading Iraq, Webb added: "We are now, as a nation, held hostage to the predictable -- and predicted -- disarray that has followed."
In a joint statement released after the speech, Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) chided Bush's Iraq troop increase and vowed to hold nonbinding votes on it. "While the president continues to ignore the will of the country, Congress will not ignore this president's failed policy," they said. "His plan will receive an up-or-down vote in both the House and the Senate, and we will continue to hold him accountable for changing course in Iraq."
The speech came at the nadir of the Bush presidency to date, with the war grinding on, ever-widening bloodshed and no end in sight, two-thirds of the public turned against him in opinion polls and Democrats controlling both houses of Congress.
Even as they sought to revive his political viability with the national address, White House officials spent yesterday monitoring reports from Iraq, where a U.S. security helicopter was shot down, U.S. officials said, and five American civilians were killed. And they nervously watched the opening of the perjury trial of Vice President Cheney's former chief aide, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, whose lawyer asserted the White House made him a scapegoat in the CIA leak case to protect Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove.
Bush devoted about half of his speech last night to Iraq, terrorism and foreign policy, largely recapitulating his familiar argument that the war is the central front in a broader battle with terrorists and represents a "generational struggle that will continue long after you and I have turned our duties over to others." He linked Sunni insurgents, Shiite extremists, al-Qaeda terrorists and Hezbollah militants as arms of a broader "Islamist radical movement" but acknowledged that the mission in Iraq has changed from deposing Saddam Hussein to stopping sectarian violence.
"This is not the fight we entered in Iraq, but it is the fight we're in," he said. "Every one of us wishes this war were over and won. Yet it would not be like us to leave our promises unkept, our friends abandoned and our own security at risk. Ladies and gentlemen, on this day, at this hour, it is still within our power to shape the outcome of this battle. Let us find our resolve and turn events toward victory."
He did not directly debate proposals by some Democrats to cut off funding for more troops in Iraq but asked them to let him try his new plan. "In the end, I chose this course of action because it provides the best chance for success," he said. "Many in this chamber understand that America must not fail in Iraq because you understand that the consequences of failure would be grievous and far-reaching."
The immediate consequence he envisioned was an Iraqi capital plunged into anarchy. "If American forces step back before Baghdad is secure, the Iraqi government would be overrun by extremists on all sides," Bush said. "We could expect an epic battle between Shia extremists backed by Iran and Sunni extremists aided by al-Qaeda 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."
Many in the chamber appeared unpersuaded. Pelosi sat grim-faced through the discussion of Iraq and did not clap when Republicans rose to support some of the president's statements. Although Iraq alone represented about a quarter of the speech, it generated applause just six times out of about 60 interruptions.
To reach out to skeptics, Bush repeated his call to create a bipartisan advisory council on the battle with terrorists and promoted his plan to permanently expand the U.S. military by 92,000 soldiers and Marines over five years to ease the burdens of fighting simultaneous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Sitting with first lady Laura Bush's box in the gallery during the speech were five decorated Iraq veterans, including Air Force Tech. Sgt. Michelle Barefield, who survived three attacks by makeshift bombs at Baghdad International Airport, repelled an enemy assault with her M-16 rifle and was awarded the Bronze Star. The White House also invited a domestic hero, Wesley Autrey, a New York construction worker who earned acclaim by jumping onto subway tracks to save a man who had fallen during a seizure.
While harboring little hope of changing minds on Iraq, White House aides said the president's ideas on domestic policy could appeal to Democrats. "We do believe it's one that can serve as a basis for bipartisan outreach," said Deputy Chief of Staff Joel D. Kaplan.
The biggest previously undisclosed initiative announced last night was Bush's proposal to reduce U.S. gasoline consumption by 20 percent by 2017, largely by stimulating the growth of ethanol and other alternative fuels but also by increasing fuel efficiency of automobiles. Bush has spoken in past State of the Union addresses about his desire to break U.S. dependency on foreign oil and last year declared that "America is addicted to oil," but his speech last night represented his most aggressive effort to curtail the habit.
The president proposed an ambitious campaign to expand the use of ethanol, methanol, hydrogen and other alternative fuels by requiring oil refineries to use 35 billion gallons of renewable and alternative fuels by 2017, a fivefold increase in the current target. Aides calculated that doing so would displace about 15 percent of projected gasoline use.
Bush also asked Congress to overhaul the mileage standards for automobiles. Rather than forcing automakers to raise fuel-efficiency standards for new cars across the board, Bush is pushing for flexibility to set different standards for different sizes and makes so manufacturers do not make smaller cars that are less safe. Officials forecast raising fuel standards by 4 percent a year, which would reduce overall gasoline use by 5 percent by 2017.
Bush also announced plans to double the capacity of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to 1.5 billion barrels by 2027 to further insulate the United States from short-term disruptions in foreign oil supplies. "Achieving these ambitious goals will dramatically reduce our dependence on foreign oil," he said.
Although the president did not embrace any plans specifically to combat greenhouse gases generally believed to contribute to global warming, as some in Washington urged him to do, he argued that technology and his energy plans "will help us to confront the serious challenge of global climate change."
Democrats said Bush's plans contain significant loopholes or are not tough enough. The alternative-fuel plan could allow for more use of fuels that emit toxic gases, critics said. And on Monday, 11 senators, including eight Democrats, two Republicans and an independent, proposed an across-the-board increase in fuel standards to 35 miles per gallon by 2019.
As aides disclosed in recent days, Bush also called for a major change in the tax code in an effort to make health insurance more affordable. Under his plan, health insurance coverage would be taxable income but families would receive a $15,000 deduction. The plan would make it easier for those who buy health insurance out of pocket while increasing taxes on those who receive employer-funded health care worth more than $15,000 to eventually offset the cost.
"Changing the tax code is a vital and necessary step to making health care affordable for more Americans," Bush said. He added that he would also direct more federal money to states to cover low-income residents, although aides did not specify how much money would be provided.
Bush used the speech to press Congress to approve his long-standing immigration bill, which couples increased funding for border security with a plan for a temporary-worker program. The plan was blocked by the Republican-led Congress last year, but administration officials hope it may be more appealing to Democrats. "We need to resolve the status of the illegal immigrants who are already in our country -- without animosity and without amnesty," Bush said.
Bush also urged Congress to reauthorize -- and not weaken -- his signature No Child Left Behind education law, which is aimed at holding schools accountable through greater testing to make sure students meet minimum standards of achievement. And he repeated his vow to produce a plan next month that will balance the budget in five years while demanding that Congress cut special-interest projects in half by the end of this congressional session.