By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 10, 2007
President Bush yesterday rejected a gasoline tax increase to repair thousands of structurally deficient bridges such as the one that collapsed in Minneapolis, pointing the finger instead at Congress for what he called misguided spending policies that have neglected high priorities in favor of pork politics.
The president's broadside triggered a furious reaction from congressional Democrats, who said he is in no position to lecture anyone on priorities. The heated exchange suggested the issue of infrastructure safety, dramatized as cars plunged into the Mississippi River last week, has become one more front in a broader battle between the White House and Congress over national goals.
Addressing the matter at a White House news conference shortly before leaving town for his summer break, Bush tried to frame the choices that will confront Washington when he and lawmakers return. He offered a passionate argument for his strategy in Iraq and a forceful defense of his embattled friend, Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales. He condemned Iran and stood behind Pakistan. And he acknowledged that he might not close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, before leaving office as he once said he hoped to do.
Over the course of 45 minutes in the newly refurbished briefing room, Bush appeared unmoved by criticism and unbothered by political troubles. At one point, he lightheartedly raised his fists to imitate a boxer -- "Okay, put up your dukes" -- and, indeed, he seemed eager to mix it up with Congress in a variety of areas, scorning lawmakers for focusing on scandal rather than passing laws.
"I would hope Congress would become more prone to deliver pieces of legislation that matter, as opposed to being the investigative body," said Bush, who has instructed aides to defy congressional subpoenas, citing executive privilege. "I mean, there have been over 600 different hearings and yet they're struggling with getting appropriations bills to my desk."
Bush was especially agitated about calls for Gonzales to resign over his handling of the firings of U.S. attorneys and other matters. "We're watching a political exercise," he said when asked why he has not fired Gonzales. "Why would I hold somebody accountable who has done nothing wrong?"
Bush was at his most cutting on the Minneapolis bridge issue. Rep. James L. Oberstar (D-Minn.), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, on Wednesday proposed increasing the 18.4-cent-per-gallon federal gasoline tax by 5 cents for three years. More than 73,000 bridges in the United States are rated "structurally deficient" by the Transportation Department. Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), Oberstar's predecessor, has said he would support higher taxes to address that, too.
"My suggestion would be that they revisit the process by which they spend gasoline money in the first place," Bush said. Noting that committee members designate funds for pet projects, while the rest is set by formula, he said: "That's not the right way to prioritize the people's money. So before we raise taxes, which could affect economic growth, I would strongly urge the Congress to examine how they set priorities. And if bridges are a priority, let's make sure we set that priority first and foremost before we raise taxes."
Democrats bristled. "For the past six years, Democrats have worked to fund our nation's most critical priorities, including investing in our infrastructure," Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.) said. "Unfortunately, President Bush has neglected these needs while turning surpluses into deficits. Now he wants to lecture us about proper investments for our country."
As it happened, the back-and-forth sniping overshadowed a rare moment of bipartisan accord. Bush opened the news conference by announcing that he was signing legislation intended to make the United States more competitive around the world by increasing scientific research funding and promoting more math, science and engineering education.
The new law, sponsored by Democrats and Republicans, targets $33.6 billion over the next three years toward those goals and mirrors some of the ideas Bush advanced in his State of the Union address in 2006. It does not embrace one of the most central aspects of that speech, a proposal to make permanent the research and development tax credit.
Foreign policy absorbed much of the conference, with Bush denouncing Iran as a "destabilizing influence" in the Middle East even as Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was in Tehran meeting with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Bush brushed off reports of warm words and smiling pictures between the two, saying such cordiality was simply protocol. "You don't want the picture to be kind of, you know, duking it out," he said, putting up his fists.
But Bush said he would warn Maliki against trusting Ahmadinejad, much as the president did with Afghan President Hamid Karzai at Camp David earlier this week. "If the signal is that Iran is constructive, I will have to have a heart-to-heart with my friend, the prime minister," Bush said of Maliki, "because I don't believe they are constructive. I don't think he, in his heart of heart, thinks they're constructive, either."
Bush continued to embrace Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, despite deep doubts in Washington about his commitment to restoring democracy and fighting terrorists in his nation's lawless border regions. The president said that he expects Musharraf to take "swift action" if intelligence agencies can locate al-Qaeda targets in Pakistan, saying he believes the general "shares the same concern about radicals and extremists as I do."
Although Bush said last year that he wants to shut down the Guantanamo prison, he said doing so has proved more difficult than it had appeared. With his advisers divided on the matter, Bush said he has delayed closing it because of trouble getting other nations to take back some of the approximately 355 detainees still there and uncertainty over what to do with others. He pointed to a symbolic 94 to 3 Senate vote last month against releasing Guantanamo detainees "into American society" or transferring them to facilities "in American communities."
Bush said that he could not predict whether Guantanamo would still be open when he leaves office in January 2009. "I laid out an aspiration," he said. "Whether or not we can achieve that or not, we'll try to. But it is not as easy a subject as some may think on the surface." Asked about a New Yorker report that an investigation by the International Committee of the Red Cross found that treatment of detainees in other CIA facilities was tantamount to torture, Bush said, "I haven't seen it. We don't torture."
On other issues, Bush said he did not recall precisely when he learned that former National Football League star Pat Tillman was killed by friendly fire while serving in the military in Afghanistan, but he expressed sympathy for his family, which has alleged a coverup. "The best way to honor that commitment of his is to find out the truth," he said. "And I'm confident the Defense Department wants to find out the truth, too, and we'll lay it out for the Tillman family."
After the news conference, Bush flew to Kennebunkport, Maine, where he will stay at his family's compound and attend a wedding. French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who is vacationing about 50 miles away at Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire, plans to join him for lunch on Saturday. Bush is to return to Washington on Sunday before leaving Monday for his ranch near Crawford, Tex. He will spend most of the rest of the month there, although he will leave a couple of times for short trips elsewhere in the United States and Canada.