President Bush dismissed yesterday suggestions that his influence is waning less than six months into his second term, blaming partisanship and timidity in Congress for the lack of action on his plans to bring change to the United Nations, restructure Social Security and enact a new energy policy this year.
"I don't worry about anything here in Washington, D.C.," Bush said during a news conference in the White House's Rose Garden. "I feel comfortable in my role as the president, and my role . . . is to push for reform." With Democrats and Republicans alike questioning the clout of a president whose approval ratings have sunk to new lows, Bush said it is Congress that must prove it is "capable of getting anything done."
Bush pressured lawmakers to approve John R. Bolton as ambassador to the United Nations, pass a lean federal budget, expand trade with Central America and approve new incentives for energy production and conservation. "I think the standard by which Congress should be judged is whether or not they can get an energy bill," Bush said.
In what has become a monthly session with reporters, Bush called "absurd" a human rights report condemning the U.S. treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
"It seemed to me they based some of their decisions on the word of -- and the allegations -- by people who were held in detention, people who hate America, people that had been trained in some instances to disassemble -- that means not tell the truth," Bush said.
He dismissed criticism of his diplomatic overtures to Iran and North Korea, and gently chided the government of Uzbekistan, an ally in the war on terrorism, for its violent crackdown on opposition groups. "We expect all our friends, as well as those who aren't our friends, to honor human rights and protect minority rights," the president said.
Speaking a few hours after former Russian oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky was sentenced to nine years in prison after a trial that many democratic activists called politically motivated, Bush said he has expressed concerns about the legal proceedings to President Vladimir Putin and will watch the appeals process closely. "Here, you are innocent until proven guilty, and it appeared to us, at least people in my administration, that it looked like he had been judged guilty prior to having a fair trial," Bush said.
With violence rising again in Iraq, Bush said he is confident the Iraqi military will eventually be equipped and trained to defeat the insurgency and allow U.S. troops to come home. Bush, who said he is "pleased with the progress" the new Iraqi government is making, set no timetable for a withdrawal.
The president did not call yesterday's news conference to talk about Iraq or the diplomatic showdown over North Korea's nuclear program. With lawmakers away for the Memorial Day recess, Bush sought in his opening remarks to highlight the positive trends in the U.S. economy, including job growth and a robust housing market, and to blame Congress for the delay in the enactment of his agenda.
"Our economy is strong, but we need to work together to make sure we continue to have a prosperous economy so people can find jobs," Bush said. "Congress can make sure that the economic signs remain hopeful."
After a quick start to his second term, including the enactment of laws making it harder for people to file class-action lawsuits and for bankruptcy, Bush has run into a more assertive Congress. Democrats are blocking Bolton, as well as at least two of the president's nominees to federal courts of appeals, while some Republicans are balking at Bush's demand for limits on stem cell research and for a broad restructuring of the Social Security system. The result is that Bush is being squeezed between a Democratic Party intent on challenging the White House and GOP lawmakers who are concerned about winning reelection in 18 months.
"Things don't happen instantly in Washington," Bush said. "I've been around here long enough now to tell you it's just -- and tell the people listening -- things just don't happen overnight."
Congress plans to recess during most of August and adjourn at the end of September, so the president needs to make significant progress over the next two months if he hopes to meet his goal of signing new energy and Social Security policies into law this year.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), on whom the White House is relying to pass a Social Security bill this summer, said Republicans on his panel are having a difficult time agreeing on ways to reduce future benefits for retirees -- and they have not yet delved into the more contentious issue of creating personal retirement accounts financed by a portion of payroll taxes.
"It's just like water cutting through a rock," Bush said. "It's just a matter of time. We're just going to keep working and working and working." The president said he remains committed to personal accounts, although White House aides are privately debating whether the accounts need to be dropped or modified to get a deal this year. "This is just the beginning of a very difficult debate," Bush said.
Bush did little to diffuse the tension over Bolton, whose nomination to the United Nations has been bogged down in a bitter dispute over his temperament and the White House's refusal to turn over the documents that Democrats are demanding to see before allowing a vote. "I view this as just another stall tactic, another way to delay, another way to not allow Bolton to get an up-or-down vote," he said.
The battles over Bolton and the judges are considered warm-ups for a fight over a Supreme Court vacancy. The White House is privately preparing for at least one justice to retire this summer, which could provide the first test to the tenuous cease-fire over the filibustering of judges.
Bush said he will consult with the Senate before deciding who to appoint to the Supreme Court. "I told the American people I would find people of a certain temperament that would serve on the bench, and I intend to," he said.