President Bush last night summoned the nation to stand with him in the Persian Gulf War, declaring that its cost in lives "is beyond our power to measure, but the cost of closing our eyes to aggression is beyond mankind's power to imagine."

Speaking to a joint session of Congress 13 days after ordering American forces into combat against Iraq, Bush said this country assumed the "burden of leadership" in confronting Iraqi President Saddam Hussein because "among the nations of the world, only the United States of America has had both the moral standing and the means to back it up."

The president's second State of the Union address turned into an emotional tribute to the men and women now serving in the war when the audience rose for a rousing, prolonged standing ovation as Bush said no one in America is "more devoted, more committed to the hard work of freedom" than the troops overseas.

The House chamber was silent as Bush said in a firm and measured voice, "Our cause is just. Our cause is moral. Our cause is right."

The audience of lawmakers and special guests, protected by the tightest security in recent memory at the Capitol, also applauded at length when Bush introduced Brenda Schwarzkopf, wife of the commander of U.S. forces in the war, and Alma Powell, wife of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The two women were seated in the gallery with First Lady Barbara Bush.

In talking about the twin crises of the war in the gulf and the recession at home, Bush confidently predicted victory. Of the war, he said, "I am certain of how it will end. So that peace can prevail. We will prevail."

On the economy, Bush said, "We will get this recession behind us, and return to growth soon." The president described the recession as a temporary interruption to the longest peacetime expansion in history.

Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (Maine), delivering the Democratic response, said the United States faces a "crisis here at home" as well as abroad and called on the president to "join us in putting our own house in order" with a broader domestic agenda.

On behalf of congressional Democrats, many of whom voted against an immediate authorization for war earlier this month, Mitchell said they will "work to see that it's swift and decisive, with the least possible loss of life."

But the Democratic leader said the United States "cannot oppose repression in one place and overlook it another," a reference to the massacre of pro-democracy demonstrators in China in 1989 and the present Soviet repression of the Baltic independence movement.

Bush, referring to the turmoil in the Baltics, said that in recent days Soviet officials had assured him they will withdraw some forces from those states and reopen a dialogue with Baltic leaders.

"Our objective is to help the Baltic peoples achieve their aspirations, not to punish the Soviet Union," the president said. Maintaining a relationship with the Soviets, he added, "is important, not only to us, but to the world."

Bush devoted a significant part of his speech to domestic policy initiatives, but nearly all of them were offered last year or have been previously announced. He offered a scaled-down version of former president Ronald Reagan's New Federalism initiative in the form of turning over to the states about $15 billion in unspecified federal programs and money to pay for them.

But conservatives' dreams of a call to arms around the theme of granting more power to individuals were dashed by a speech that sidestepped most ideological flashpoints. A senior White House official said the president "has no stomach" for major battles with Congress when the nation is at war.

That strategy was evident in Bush's handling of the capital gains tax proposal, which generated months of controversy and chaos in Washington last year. The president said he would renew his call for the tax cut but effectively put it on the back burner by proposing that a commission of White House and congressional leaders headed by Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan first study its impact.

On the gulf war, Bush said the nation stands at "a defining hour," picking up a burden of leadership that no other nation can shoulder. "We are Americans. We have a unique responsibility to do the hard work of freedom," he said. "We are the only nation on this earth that could assemble the forces of peace."

Bush portrayed the effort to stop Iraqi President Saddam Hussein as a burden that comes with the "blessings of freedom." Future generations, he said, should say of this effort: "We stood where duty required us to stand."

In a brief progress report on the war, the president offered little beyond what he has said since the second day of the war. "We are on course. Iraq's capacity to sustain war is being destroyed," he said. The nation's investment in defense, he said, is "paying off."

Bush quickly cashed in one dividend of the war, the performance of the Patriot anti-missile defense system. He announced he had directed that the moribund Strategic Defense Initiative, under almost constant siege in Congress, be refocused to concentrate on such anti-missile systems, a move aimed at assuring its funding.

In sketching out broad themes -- but few details -- of domestic policy, Bush borrowed some of Reagan's oft-used rhetoric in calling for a "renewal" of America's spirit and saying, "If anyone tells you America's best days are behind her, they're looking the wrong way."

He portrayed his domestic initiatives as an investment in the "next American century," and said he would submit legislation that would expand educational vouchers for public school children to attend schools of their choice; offer a blueprint for a new national highway system; provide record levels of funding and new tax credits for research and development, and propose a national energy strategy and banking reform plan. All of those proposals, at least in general form, have been announced before.

The energy strategy and highway plan are both called for by Congress and will be detailed later this year, the latter when the old highway laws are up for renewal. A banking reform plan, which the Treasury Department announced in concept last year, is expected to be unveiled in detail later this week.

Bush made only passing reference to the recession, acknowledging in reading a letter from a woman from Massachusetts -- an old Reagan device -- that he understood the pain a bad economy brings to individual Americans. But, said the president, "We will get this recession behind us and return to growth soon."

He defined his economic goals as focusing on encouraging economic growth, "investing in the future and giving power and opportunity to the individual." That reference to power was about as close as Bush was willing to come to the so-called "empowerment" agenda being pushed on him by conservatives within the administration such as Housing and Urban Development Secretary Jack Kemp and outside it such as House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.).

Bush did give a nod to some pieces of that agenda: efforts to encourage tenants to buy their own homes and to give parents vouchers so they can choose schools for their children -- but he described no agenda of "empowerment" or a "new paradigm," the conservative code words.

The president repeated familiar Republican themes, citing the need for Americans to help each other without aid from the government, and for government to return to individuals the power "to chart their own destiny and the freedom and opportunity provided by strong economic growth."

Speaking for the Democrats, Mitchell did not contest the president's handling of the war, only his failure to respond to other assaults on democracy around the world. Mitchell said the massacre of students in China, priests in Central America and demonstrators in Lithuania "are as wrong as Iraqi soldiers killing civilians" and asserted: "We cannot oppose repression in one place and overlook it in another."

Moving to seize the offensive for Democrats on domestic issues, Mitchell said the nation's needs cannot go unmet until the war is over. "The president says he seeks a new world order. We ask him to join us in putting our own house in order. We have a crisis abroad. But we also have a crisis here at home."

The first priority must be economic growth and the first step toward that goal must be "a sensible energy policy," Mitchell said. The nation has had no energy policy for a decade and "we need a new energy program which encourages conservation, promotes the use of alternative fuels and reduces our dependence on imported oil," he added.

While Bush's program included no anti-recession progams, administration officials said the president advocates a number of initiatives that have a longer term goal of assuring economic expansion. A senior administration official said that, because many economists believe the recession will be short and not too severe, the economy may be heading upward by the time any legislative proposals take effect.

Bush is laying out "a growth agenda . . . geared for the long term," a senior official said. He added that the administration's approach to the recession is "no heavy {government} spending programs . . . no shock treatment." Instead, he said continued pressure on spending and several previously offered ideas -- tax-free family savings accounts, penalty-free withdrawal of money in Individual Retirement Accounts for purchases of a first home and a cut in capital gains taxes -- would help assure economic growth.

On capital gains, the officials said Bush's proposal to have Greenspan referee the longstanding dispute between the White House and Congress over whether the tax cut raises or loses revenue "doesn't in any way violate the rules of the budget agreement."

The administration has long argued that a capital gains tax cut would increase taxes by stimulating investment and economic growth. Democrats say it cost the government money. During the budget debate last year, the two sides agreed that it would mean a revenue loss, but the administration has been chafing over this for months.

Bush's one new idea -- a proposal to turn some federal programs over to the states -- calls for the White House and Congress to select $15 billion in programs and turn them into a single block grant for the states, with no strings attached. Administration officials said that the programs would be fully funded, but that the block grant proposal, which dates back to the Nixon administration, would give governors flexibility in spending the money. The officials refused to provide examples of programs that might be affected.