White House

Bush reaches out to skeptical Democrats

WASHINGTON—Facing a Democratic-controlled—and hostile—Congress for the first time, a politically weak President Bush bowed to political reality in his State of the Union address Tuesday night by advancing domestic policies that he hoped might win bipartisan support.

Little consensus was apparent, however.

The president proposed to boost alternative fuels, reduce auto emissions and offer a tax break for buying health insurance—unless your employer buys an expensive plan for you, and then Bush would make you pay tax on it.

On the dominant issue of the day, the president was unyielding on Iraq and his plan to send 21,500 more U.S. troops there, despite bipartisan congressional opposition and polls showing that a large majority of Americans are against it.

"On this day, at this hour, it is still within our power to shape the outcome of this battle. So let us find our resolve and turn events toward victory," Bush told a joint session of Congress in the packed chamber of the House of Representatives.

"Our country is pursuing a new strategy in Iraq—and I ask you to give it a chance to work."

Yet the war is so divisive that it may overwhelm chances for bipartisan compromise on anything, despite Bush's invitation to try.

"We are not the first to come here with government divided and uncertainty in the air. Like many before us, we can work through our differences, and achieve big things for the American people," Bush said.

Democrats reacted with skepticism and, on some issues, outright hostility.

On Iraq, "the majority of the nation no longer supports the way this war is being fought; nor does the majority of our military. We need a new direction," said Sen. James Webb, D-Va., delivering his party's official reaction to Bush's speech.

On health insurance, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said: "Punish people because they have good insurance? I don't think they would agree with that. Taxing people who have health insurance doesn't make sense to me."

The one major initiative where Bush won what appeared to be genuine bipartisan response was his call to revive his stalled plan to overhaul immigration law, including a guest worker program and a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants here now. That won a standing ovation.

Still, that was the exception.

On prospects for bipartisan partnership, Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, said, "I appreciate the president's visit tonight, but he really should have done more to reach out to Democrats before his speech to see if we can come together, rather than simply exchange policies and press releases."

While Republican leaders rallied behind the president, even some of their rank-and-file backbench GOP lawmakers seemed hard-pressed to cheer.

"He's facing a legislative body that's changed as a result of his policies, in large part because of his way of running the worldwide war on terror, especially in Iraq," said Rep. George Radanovich, R-Calif.

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