State of the Union is bold – or out of touch

TUESDAY, JAN. 29, 2008

President Bush’s last State of the Union address was seen as a bold plan for his final year in office by some Northwest members of Congress and a sign that he’s out of touch with a national mood for change by others.

But members of both parties could find something they liked and something they didn’t in the 53-minute speech.

“It was the speech of a president who obviously isn’t going to retire until January 2009,” Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, said.

Sen. Patty Murray, Washington’s senior Democrat, contended, however, the speech showed he was misreading the public.

“All of the presidential candidates on both sides are talking about change, and he came in with the same old things,” she said. “The economy is slipping … and the American public is saying ‘What about us?’ “

Craig and Murray, who sit on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, and several other members applauded Bush’s call for expanding benefits for veterans and their family members.

Congress approved accelerated benefits for veterans last year under the “Wounded Warriors” legislation, Craig said, and a proposal to allow veterans to transfer unused education benefits to spouses or children would have a good chance this year.

Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., called that a great idea, and one that could pass “if he’s serious about it.”

With an admonition to “get it done,” Bush urged the Senate to approve with few changes an economic stimulus package that he negotiated with House leadership, and is set for a vote in the House today.Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., said she’ll vote in favor of that plan as a way of easing the concerns of the public.

“It’s an example of where Republicans and Democrats are coming together on what’s best for America,” she said. “We need to move quickly.”

But Rep. Bill Sali, R-Idaho, said he wasn’t sure yet that he could support the stimulus package because of concerns over driving up the deficit. He’d rather support a package that cuts taxes and spending, but conceded Bush is likely stuck with a plan that is “not what he’d like to do but what he can do.”

Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, said he also has concerns about the costs of the package, which he called one of the few areas of the speech where he differs with the president.

“I’m not yet convinced that piling $100 billion to $150 billion on our debt … is the right thing to do,” Crapo said.

And while Craig also liked much of the agenda Bush laid out, he’s concerned that the stimulus package will do little to stimulate the economy long term. He’s hoping the Senate will add a tax credit for homebuyers, similar to what was used in the 1970s, to stimulate the housing market, and with it, the timber industry.

Cantwell said she hopes the Senate will add some incentives to stimulate businesses involved in energy conservation, which would pay long-term economic and environmental dividends.

The president devoted a significant portion of the second half of his speech to Iraq. McMorris Rodgers said she recalled that a year ago, when he first announced the increase in military forces, some were pessimistic about the results. Now he was talking about bringing the troop levels down, and “we’re in a much better place,” she said.

But Murray said Bush painted an “awfully rosy” picture of the situation in Iraq, where the United States is entering its sixth year of war. She was unhappy with his warning to Congress to rely on the administration and military commanders to decide on any further withdrawals.

“The message is, we’ve got to keep 160,000 troops in there indefinitely,” she said.

Sali said he worried that Bush’s proposals on immigration reform weren’t specific enough and eventually will contain amnesty for foreign nationals in the country illegally. But McMorris Rodgers said she doubted that was the case, because of a general recognition that amnesty is “a deal-breaker.”

Like other Republicans, McMorris Rodgers said the speech was definitely not the address of a lame duck. Rather, it seemed to be a recognition that only a year remains for Bush to accomplish what he wants, and he was signaling “a sprint to the finish” along with a call for Congress to stop its partisan fighting.

Cantwell said it had some interesting ideas, but she wants to see some details and follow-through, particularly on energy.

“It was really more of a smorgasbord of issues rather than a big, inspirational speech,” Cantwell said.


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