WASHINGTON – A Democratic Congress is poised to heed President Bush’s call to help save the economy, but may not give him much else after a State of the Union speech that recycled many of the administration’s past initiatives.A lame duck president called again for immigration reform, an end to lawmakers’ pet projects, control of Social Security spending and making tax cuts permanent. Democrats have rejected those Bush initiatives before.
And, in a sign that the dominant political battles will not be in Congress, many in the House chamber kept an eye during the speech on Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton – bitter rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination. They sat close to each other, but managed not to shake hands.
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, who hours earlier had endorsed Obama over Clinton, reached out to shake Sen. Clinton’s hand when she came near.
Bush is plunging into politics himself this week, raising money for Republicans from Wednesday through Friday at events in California, Nevada, Colorado and Missouri. Other appearances will promote the themes from his speech.
Delivering the televised Democratic response, Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius urged Bush to work with a Congress controlled by her party.
“The last five years have cost us dearly – in lives lost, in thousands of wounded warriors whose futures may never be the same, in challenges not met here at home because our resources were committed elsewhere,” she said. “America’s foreign policy has left us with fewer allies and more enemies.”
The president pushed hard for “a robust growth package” to jump-start the economy, asking Democrats to avoid the temptation “to load up the bill.”
As he spoke, Senate Democrats already were planning to expand the package negotiated by Bush and House leaders from both parties, to include tax rebates for senior citizens and an extension of unemployment benefits.
Bush said allowing previous tax cuts to lapse would raise bills for 116 million Americans, but Democrats have cited the rising deficits as the war in Iraq has dragged on.
The president warned, as he has repeatedly, that pulling Americans out of Iraq too soon would aid al-Qaida and undermine Iraq’s government.
“Members of Congress: Having come so far and achieved so much, we must not allow this to happen,” the president said.
Bush is likely to keep winning that one. Democrats have tried again and again to set a timetable for withdrawal, but lacked the votes.
Congress has ignored Bush’s proposals to deal with millions of illegal immigrants and to control Social Security spending.
“I ask members of Congress to offer your proposals and come up with a bipartisan solution to save these vital programs for our children and grandchildren,” Bush said.
There’s no reason to think that Congress will touch Social Security in an election year, and any immigration agreement would not involve comprehensive reform on an issue that has deeply divided the nation.
Illegal immigration “must be resolved in a way that upholds both our laws and our highest ideals,” Bush said. That line, which didn’t propose a solution, was applauded on both sides of the aisle.
The president, speaking about one of his signature programs, urged Congress to continue the No Child Left Behind Act, saying, “no one can deny its results.”
Republicans enthusiastically applauded. Several Democrats, who disagree, could be heard laughing at Bush’s conclusion.