White House

Diminishing clout presents challenges for Bush

WASHINGTON—Facing a hostile Congress and a skeptical public, President Bush will use his State of the Union speech Tuesday to try to leverage his rapidly diminishing clout behind a series of new proposals.

In his seventh annual address to Congress, Bush will offer to work with lawmakers on a handful of domestic issues while urging them to support his plans for Iraq. He'll call for expanding health-insurance coverage, tout a foreign guest-worker program and offer initiatives intended to slow global warming.

But he's never gone to Capitol Hill under such difficult circumstances, and he's so weak politically that his effort to set the national agenda is unlikely to succeed, for Democrats didn't win power to follow his lead.

He'll speak at 9 p.m. EST to a Congress controlled by his political opponents and to a national television audience that's lost confidence in him. A new ABC News-Washington Post poll released Monday found that Bush was more unpopular on the eve of this State of the Union speech than any president since Richard Nixon in 1974, during the Watergate scandal.

Nearly two-thirds of Americans say they disapprove of Bush's job performance.

Restive Republicans in Congress are increasingly willing to desert him. On Monday, Sen. John Warner of Virginia and two other Republicans, Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Norm Coleman of Minnesota, said they'd offer a Senate resolution opposing the president's plan to send more U.S. troops to Iraq.

Warner, the former chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and a former Navy secretary, is one of the most influential lawmakers on military issues. His split with Bush on Iraq could help convince other Republicans to break with the White House.

Separately, Republicans in the House of Representatives called Monday for the president to report monthly on Iraq to a new bipartisan committee that will monitor the situation there. After six years in which House Republicans saluted virtually everything Bush did, this too reflects ebbing confidence in his war policy.

In yet another sign of Bush's shrinking power, 10 chief executive officers from some of America's largest corporations visited Washington to press for a more aggressive policy against global warming. They didn't wait to hear the president's speech, issuing a public letter urging him to do much more, as many members of Congress propose. White House Press Secretary Tony Snow said Bush's proposals wouldn't go as far as the CEOs sought.

"It's uphill for the president. Democrats are really the ones choosing which issues get talked about," said Sarah Binder, a political science professor at George Washington University. "He really wants and needs to put his imprint on the domestic policy agenda."

Bush is expected to acknowledge the political realities by focusing on issues that might win Democratic support.

His health-care plan would expand coverage by offering new tax breaks for basic medical insurance while imposing new taxes on the most generous plans. Generous plans would be treated as a taxable fringe benefit.

The president also is hoping that Democrats will help him revive a guest-worker program that stalled last year in the then-Republican-led Congress. Many of Bush's Republican allies were more interested in cracking down on illegal immigration than in establishing a new program for immigrant workers. Democrats may be more receptive.

The president also will seek compromises on promoting alternative fuels and education. He's likely to mention other old standbys, including permanently extending his tax cuts and overhauling Social Security and Medicare, but even some Republicans concede that those ideas are going nowhere.

"He's got to pick his spots. There are spots where he can work with Democrats," said Republican consultant Charlie Black, an informal White House adviser. "Maybe there's even a budget deal to be made somewhere along the way. But other things he would like to do—making tax cuts permanent, for example—aren't going to happen."

The increasingly bitter dispute over Iraq could poison any attempt at bipartisan compromise. Democrats signaled their frustration with the president's plans to deploy 21,500 more troops by choosing newly elected Sen. James Webb, D-Va., to deliver their response to Bush's speech.

Webb, a Vietnam veteran, is an outspoken critic of the Iraq war who has a Marine son serving there. In a conference call with reporters Monday, he called Bush's latest plan for Iraq "just a lot more flailing around."

Binder, the author of a book on legislative gridlock, said Iraq had become the dominant issue in Congress.

"Everything falls below the shadow of Iraq. It's going to squeeze almost all the energy out of this Congress," she said. "You have a divided government, you have a divided public and you have an issue that will consume everything."

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