Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (Maine) last night pledged the Democrats' support for a "swift and decisive" conclusion of the Persian Gulf War but asserted that the nation faces "a crisis here at home" that cannot be ignored while the war is being fought.
In the formal Democratic reply to President Bush's State of the Union address, Mitchell staked out a hard-times domestic agenda focusing on economic growth, with a "sensible energy policy" as the first step toward achieving that goal.
"As critical as the gulf conflict is, the other business of the nation won't wait," Mitchell said. "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."
Mitchell's words were echoed by most other Democratic lawmakers, while Republicans said Bush had his priorities right in stressing the war effort.
"The president, as usual, displays greater authority in confronting the war effort than in meeting the serious economic and domestic needs within our society," said House Budget Committee Chairman Leon E. Panetta (D-Calif.).
"The bottom line is: It appears the administration is firing real bullets at Saddam Hussein and shooting blanks at home," said House Majority Whip William H. Gray III (D-Pa.).
"It was a call for unity in the Persian Gulf War. All the rest was background noise," said Sen. J. Bennett Johnston (D-La.).
Rep. Vic Fazio (D-Calif.) faulted Bush for failing to prepare the nation for what could be a protracted, bloody war. "He wanted to retain the optimism that this is going to be short. . . . The opportunity was lost to talk about the difficult days ahead." Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), who helped lead the fight against the war authorization, said Bush's comments on the gulf conflict were "unifying and uplifting."
But some Democrats also praised Bush for emphasizing domestic needs as much as he did. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) commended Bush for "his strong emphasis on domestic priorities," and Rep. Mike Espy (D-Miss.) said Bush "spent more time identifying the domestic agenda than I thought he would, and I was pleased by that."
Many Democrats also went out of their way to praise Bush's efforts to convey a sense of national purpose as the nation heads into the third week of war. "It was an important opportunity to unify the country, and he did it very well," said Fazio.
Senate Minority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) said Bush "properly left politics at home" and added: "We'll have plenty of time to roll up our sleeves and tackle the serious domestic agenda he outlined tonight. . . . " Conservative Republicans, who had pushed the administration hard to include proposals to shift power away from Washington, appeared especially delighted with Bush's domestic proposals. Rep. Bill Lowery (R-Calif.) called them "completely unifying for House Republicans. It's a growth agenda."
Mitchell's comments on the gulf war reflected a delicately crafted attempt to demonstrate Democrats' support for American troops in the gulf without appearing to endorse or criticize the president's decision to go to war, which is supported by most Americans in public opinion polls.
In votes earlier this month on resolutions authorizing use of military force to expel Iran from Kuwait, a majority of Democrats opposed early war in favor of continued pressure on Baghdad through international economic sanctions.
"We agreed that Iraq's aggression was brutal and illegal and that Iraq must leave Kuwait, by force if necessary," Mitchell said. "The difference was not in the goals but in the means: whether force should be used immediately or only as a last resort if other means failed. No one will ever know if that other course would have worked. Now that war has begun, we'll work to see that it's swift and decisive, with the least possible loss of life."
Nothing is more difficult in a democracy than "to ask a few to risk everything in behalf of the many who risk nothing," Mitchell said. "Our troops deserve our full support. They have mine and that of the Congress. Our support will not end when the fighting ends."
Mitchell added a word of veiled criticism for U.S. policies leading up to the war and for administration policies in some other areas of the world.
After the war, America must never forget that "the dictator we help today may turn his weapons on us tomorrow," he said. "For 10 years, U.S. policy favored Iraq. We can't repeat that kind of mistake."
He called attention to the killing of students in China, priests in Central America and demonstrators in Lithuania and asserted, "These acts of violence are as wrong as Iraqi soldiers killing civilians. We cannot oppose repression in one place and overlook it in another."
Turning to the Democrats' domestic agenda, Mitchell said the first priority was economic growth, especially job creation, and called for an energy policy encouraging conservation, promoting alternative fuels and reducing dependence on imported oil as "the first step to growth."
He said the nation's talents and technology should be devoted to the "work of peace" as well as war. "If we can make the best smart bomb, can't we make the best VCR? If we can build a high-speed Patriot missile, can't we build a high-speed train? I believe we can," he said.
Without referring to Bush's call for a study of capital gains tax reduction, Mitchell said it is "working men and women, the middle class" who should be getting tax relief, although he did not propose any specific action.
Mitchell also called for new efforts to combat pollution, strengthen the nation's banking system, reduce the cost of congressional campaigns, aid state and local anti-crime and anti-drug efforts, expand aid to poor children and embark on new health care initiatives, including long-term care for the elderly and assistance for the uninsured.
"We can provide better health care at less cost. We all have to do more with less," he said, implying health care can be restructured under existing fiscal constraints.
Earlier in the day, House Speaker Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.) cautioned that Congress will have difficulty launching costly new programs, such as comprehensive health care initiatives, so long as the gulf war continues.
He said he thought the highway bill and other "infrastructure rehabilitation" programs, along with education improvements, should be pursued in spite of the war in order to stimulate economic growth.
But, he told reporters, "very large programs that might otherwise have been possible are going to be difficult while the war is underway," even with a major portion of the war's costs being paid by allied countries. "Programs such as restructuring health care may be difficult to do as soon as we otherwise would hope to do," he said.
In what appears to be a developing debate over these and other spending priorities within a tight budget, Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.) praised the president's suggestion that some unspecified federal spending programs be terminated. "For the first time, we may get a priority debate."
Staff writer Don Phillips contributed to this report.