President Bush last night pressed his conservative social agenda, calling for more federal funding of charitable work by religious groups, greater reliance on private health plans to treat the elderly and new restrictions on abortions and medical research involving human embryos.
The president hinted at what would be among the most ambitious policy changes of his first term: a $400 billion plan to restructure Medicare by adding prescription drug coverage for recipients willing to join managed care. But during the approximately one-third of his speech devoted to domestic issues, Bush mainly tried to sell familiar proposals, including those that have maintained his ties to social and economic conservatives.
Perhaps the boldest facet of last night's conservative thrust was a proposal to create a system of federal vouchers for people seeking to overcome drug and alcohol addictions. The $600 million in vouchers over the next three years could be used at rehabilitation programs run by religious groups, including ones that rely on prayer to try to help wean people off drugs.
Quoting a man who had gotten such assistance at Healing Place Church in Louisiana, Bush said, "God does miracles in people's lives."
In promoting conservatives' economic agenda, the president highlighted a new round of tax reductions that he proposed early this month. Worth $670 billion over 10 years, the plan's central element would slash taxes on investment dividends.
Bush renewed his call for several policies that the White House has been unable to push through Congress. They include a comprehensive energy plan that would open Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling; a new system of tax credits for people who cannot obtain health insurance through their jobs; and a proposal to curb forest fires by permitting more logging in national forests. He also reprised his proposal for the first federal limits on damage awards from medical malpractice lawsuits.
The president gave little emphasis to Social Security, mentioning briefly his desire to allow workers to invest a part of their payroll taxes in stocks and bonds -- an issue that aides have said will not be among the administration's first-tier priorities this year. Bush also proposed spending $1.2 billion on research into hydrogen-powered cars.
Although not all the issues were new, the speech's emphasis on conservative social causes represented a departure from Bush's first State of the Union address a year ago. Back then, he did not mention his desire to ban all forms of cloning -- including for biomedical research -- or his opposition to a procedure that critics call "partial birth" abortion. Along with a new $450 million initiative that would provide mentors to disadvantaged junior high school students and the children of prisoners, Bush called those policies part of "a culture that values every life."
The Bush White House has had limited success with its so-called compassion agenda. A feature of last year's State of the Union address, the creation of a USA Freedom Corps to foster volunteerism was barely funded.
The proposed expansion of funding for drug treatment by religious groups stirred immediate protests from civil libertarians. "People with addiction problems need medical help, not Sunday school," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
Under the president's proposal, drug addicts could use vouchers to pay for treatment by secular or religious organizations. For example, Teen Challenge, a Missouri-based group the administration has praised, says its method of fighting drug addiction involves "teaching a student a new way of living based on faith in Christ and biblical principles."
The president sought to strengthen support for changing Medicare, the federal insurance program that provides coverage to nearly 40 million older Americans, but provided few details. Sources have said the White House is completing a plan that would create a new part of the program that relies on managed care and offers prescription drug coverage to Medicare patients.
He reiterated his promise not to compel Medicare recipients to leave their doctors. But he said, "all seniors should have the choice of a health plan that provides prescription drugs." The price tag he affixed to the program, $400 billion over the next decade, represents about twice what the White House has proposed for prescription drug coverage under Medicare the past two years. It is slightly larger than the sum envisioned by some recent GOP Medicare plans in Congress.
Yesterday, congressional sources said administration officials have told them the plan will call for at least three "preferred provider organizations" -- a type of managed care -- to be offered to elderly Americans in 10 regions of the country. Yesterday, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) stopped short of endorsing the White House's plan but said the Senate would take up the issue in six months.
With the economy stalled, Bush devoted the first part of his speech to economic policies. But three weeks after proposing a 10-year, $674 billion "economic growth" plan, he focused more on salesmanship than new initiatives.
Recent history may make the president's task harder. During his 2002 State of the Union address, Bush pledged: "My economic security plan can be summed up in one word: jobs." Since then, a new round of business tax cuts has gone into effect. The president has largely prevailed in his spending battles with Congress. Yet the private sector has lost about 181,000 jobs, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Last night, the president sounded undeterred. "Our first goal is clear," he said. "We must have an economy that grows fast enough to employ every man and woman who seeks a job."
Staff writer Alan Cooperman contributed to this report.