By William Branigin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 25, 2008 5:09 PM
Delivering what they called a "prebuttal" to President Bush's final State of the Union speech, congressional Democratic leaders called on Bush to chart a new direction for the U.S. economy and restore America's "moral authority" abroad, notably by publicly renouncing torture and closing the Guantanamo Bay detention facility.
In speeches and a question-and-answer session at the National Press Club, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) highlighted what they described as Bush's failure to make cost-effective investments in domestic and foreign programs because of his commitment to a war in Iraq that costs about $330 million a day.
"We need to restore America's leadership in the world, and we truly need a new direction in Iraq," Pelosi said.
"Our first goal as a country must be to restore that moral authority," which has "suffered grave damage," Reid added. When Bush delivers his State of the Union address Monday night, "he can start by announcing America does not torture," the Senate Democratic leader said.
"Democrats call on him to support one standard of interrogation for the entire United States government, to renounce waterboarding and to finally commit to closing Guantanamo."
Reid referred to a harsh interrogation technique that simulates drowning and that reportedly has been used to extract information from key suspected terrorists captured after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
Bush has maintained that the United States does not engage in torture, but he and other top officials have refused to discuss specific techniques. Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey angered Democratic lawmakers during his Senate confirmation hearing last year by refusing to say whether waterboarding amounts to torture.
Reid also called on Bush to announce plans Monday night to "expand our Foreign Service, our Peace Corps and our funding for international development." He noted that U.S. Foreign Service officers stationed around the world number "just 7,000, or about the size of the crew of just one United States aircraft carrier." He also said Bush's 2002 pledge to double the size of the Peace Corps to 15,000 "remains unfulfilled." The corps today is about 8,000 strong, "barely larger" than it was six years ago, Reid said.
The Nevada Democrat urged Bush to "immediately double the number of intelligence and special operations teams engaged in the hunt" for Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaeda leaders. And he called for a "new approach" to Pakistan and Iran, saying the United States should side with pro-democracy activists in Pakistan and engage the Iranian government in diplomacy.
"We must not be afraid to communicate with unfriendly countries," Reid said. "This is not a sign of weakness. It's a sign of strength." He said Bush should start by sending Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates "to meet with their Iranian counterparts," with the initial aim of preventing incidents such as a recent encounter between U.S. warships and Iranian navy speedboats in the Persian Gulf.
While the Iranian regime poses "a profoundly serious challenge" by supporting terrorism, pursuing nuclear technology and meddling in Iraq and the Middle East, Reid said, "we firmly believe that America's security interests are best served by pursuing diplomacy first."
Pelosi focused her remarks on domestic issues, saying the United States needs to chart "a new and innovative entrepreneurial way" in four areas: education, health care, infrastructure and the environment.
"In 2008 . . . we must keep America growing while making America greener," she said. "That means reinvesting in our crumbling highways and bridges and renewing our commitment to mass transit, solutions which will create jobs for the middle class here at home."
Pelosi told the press club, "Global warming is the issue upon which this generation of leaders will be judged by posterity. Only this generation can make the changes needed in time to avert a crisis that our children and our grandchildren will otherwise have to face."