Democrats in Congress last night extended their party's strong support to President Bush for his Persian Gulf policy, but expressed disappointment at what they characterized as the president's inflexibility on the current budget negotiations with Capitol Hill.
Responding for his party to Bush's televised address to Congress and the nation and reflecting the widespread backing the president has received from both the public and lawmakers for the goals of the U.S. troop deployment to Saudi Arabia, House Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) said "in this crisis, we are not Republicans or Democrats. We are only and proudly Americans."
"We are now in the Persian Gulf not simply for oil, or to save emirs and kings, but to defend the most fundamental values of a more stable and decent world," Gephardt added. "This is a cause worth standing and fighting for."
But both Gephardt and many of his colleagues stressed that the U.S. effort must be matched by a stronger commitment of troops and money by such American allies as Germany and Japan.
"When countries like Egypt can stand beside us, when young Americans stand on front lines, only miles from the threat of poison gas, the least the Japanese and Germans can do is support us -- and not just with words," said Gephardt.
Rep. John Bryant (D-Tex.) called Bush's failure to stress the need for burden sharing in protecting vital interests in the gulf a "major omission." Americans, said Bryant, "are willing to defend the weak but not to pay the bills for the rest of the world."
Even some Republicans shared that view. Rep. Jack Buechner (R-Mo.) said, "I don't think we've kicked the NATO allies enough. We've covered their behinds long enough."
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said Bush should have put more stress on the need for patience on the part of the American people for what is likely to be a protracted U.S. presence in the Mideast.
While enthusiastic about Bush's remarks on the need to contain Iraqi expansionism, many lawmakers said the president's challenge to Congress on the budget was not in the spirit of cooperation they believe is necessary to produce a deficit-reduction accord.
With Bush's insistence on a capital gains tax cut, in combination with his rejection of any increase in income tax rates for the wealthy, said Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), "it's obvious he wants to put the burden on the backs of working people."
"If that is what comes out of the budget summit," added Rep. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), "it will be hard to get Democratic votes for it. It was not a bridge to compromise."
Gephardt, who heads his party's team of budget negotiators currently engaged in deficit talks with the White House, also used his speech to plug Democratic goals in those talks. He said that Democrats will insist that the interests of working Americans be protected in the package of spending cuts and tax increases emerging from the budget summit.
"We will never abandon the cause of working families," said Gephardt. "They benefited the least from the decade of the 80's; they should not have to sacrifice the most in the decade of the 90's. They already pay for government, their student loans have already been cut, and their sons and daughters are at risk in the Persian Gulf."
But Democratic sentiment was not unanimous. Rep. Michael A. Andrews (D-Tex.), who strongly supports a capital gains tax cut, praised Bush for challenging Congress on the budget. "He's right," said Andrews. "It's time to come to an agreement. The worst thing we could do is not reach an agreement on the budget."
Democrats appeared divided on Bush's call for a national energy policy. Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) said he welcomed a president stressing the need for a comprehensive energy policy including conservation for the first time since the administration of President Jimmy Carter. But Harkin criticized his approach as "shortsighted" because it ignored renewable energy sources in favor of petroleum drilling. "This is still 'oil-well George,' " said Harkin.
Even some staunch Bush critics in Congress gave the president relatively high marks for his speech. "It was a very persuasive performance," said Rep. Robert G. Torricelli (D-N.J.). "It was by far the best performance George Bush ever made to Congress." But Torricelli said Bush was "surprisingly uncompromising" on the deficit talks, a stance that could lead to "serious problems" in coming weeks.
Tying the budget fairness issue to the question of burden sharing in the gulf operation, Gephardt said, "Just as we must ask wealthy nations to pay their fair share to deter aggression, so we must ask wealthy Americans to pay their fair share to prevent recession and reduce our debts."