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President urges unity on Iraq

State of Union address offers healthcare, energy plans

WASHINGTON -- President Bush, seeking to sell a skeptical Congress and American public on the increasingly unpopular war in Iraq, warned in his State of the Union address last night that failure in Iraq would be "grievous and far-reaching," and pleaded with lawmakers to support him in a battle he described as central to quashing terrorism around the globe.

With new Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi seated behind him in the House chamber -- a reminder that he can no longer rely on a Republican congressional majority to approve his agenda -- Bush also urged bipartisan cooperation to address critical issues: energy, education, and healthcare. He offered new proposals to help Americans buy their own health insurance and to reduce the greenhouse-gas emissions that cause global warming.

"We are not the first to come here with government divided and uncertainty in the air," the president said in his seventh State of the Union address -- his first to a chamber where Democratic lawmakers outnumber Republicans. "Our citizens don't much care which side of the aisle we sit on -- as long as we are willing to cross that aisle when there is work to be done."

On Iraq, the president called for unity on a war that has bitterly divided the American people and spurred an angry uproar from lawmakers in both parties frustrated by the slow progress of the nearly four-year-long effort. Democrats are ready to pass nonbinding resolutions denouncing Bush's "surge" of 21,500 additional troops, and at least a dozen Senate and House Republicans appear ready to join them.

"The evil that inspired and rejoiced in 9/11 is still at work in the world. And so long as that is the case, America is still a nation at war," Bush said.

In perhaps an acknowledgement of complaints from Capitol Hill that he does not consult the legislative branch on the war, Bush proposed a special "advisory council on the war on terror," which he said would consist of congressional leaders from both parties.

"We will show our enemies abroad that we are united in the goal of victory," Bush said.

The speech came at one of the most challenging and difficult moments in his second term. For the first time since taking office, Bush -- his own popularity languishing at near-record lows in public opinion polls -- faced an opposition Congress determined to stonewall his war plans, conduct rigorous oversight of government, and initiate sweeping investigations of his administration.

Before the president began his formal address, he acknowledged the historic presence of Pelosi, a California Democrat. "Tonight, I have the high privilege and distinct honor of my own, as the first president to begin the State of the Union message with these words: "Madam Speaker,' " Bush said, drawing a standing ovation and a warm handshake from Pelosi.

There was no talk of bold initiatives, such as remaking Social Security, or blustery rhetoric that mirrored his famous construct "axis of evil" -- a bow to his new political realities. Bush offered no laundry list of policy proposals, instead focusing on a small number of priorities on which he hopes he and Congress can find common ground.

Republicans loudly applauded Bush's references to tax cuts, quick votes on judicial nominees, and legislation to curtail "junk lawsuits." But his address struck themes important to Democratic lawmakers: healthcare, education, climate change, and immigration. Still, the president, already wrestling with a Congress hostile to his troop expansion in Iraq, faces a difficult battle on his domestic agenda as well.

In his most dramatic new initiative, Bush proposed granting a tax deduction of $7,500 for individuals and $15,000 for families to encourage them to purchase their own health insurance. To discourage lavish, employer-paid health benefits, meanwhile, he proposed that workers would have to pay taxes on the value of those benefits beyond the values of the tax deductions.

While the White House said the plan would deliver a tax cut to as many as 80 percent of workers, the proposal would represent the first time the federal government taxed health benefits as income.

"A future of hope and opportunity requires that all our citizens have affordable and available healthcare," Bush said. "This reform will level the playing field for those who do not get health insurance through their job."

While lawmakers and health advocates welcomed the president's new attention to healthcare -- an issue that has been largely ignored in Washington for the past six years -- Democrats and labor unions were critical of Bush's approach.

His plan "is actually another incentive for employers to get out of the business of providing healthcare," said Richard Rogers, executive secretary-treasurer of the Greater Boston Labor Council. "He is obviously getting the message of what a huge issue healthcare is. But this is absolutely the wrong way to go."

Senate majority leader Harry Reid , a Nevada Democrat, said Bush's plan is a "jerry-rigging" approach that would impose new taxes on workers and have the opposite of the desired impact.

"If we ask anyone in America today, that you would in effect punish people because they have good insurance, I don't think they would agree with that," Reid said.

Bush's proposal to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions -- which scientists overwhelmingly agree causes global warming -- was the president's most substantive response to the issue. His plan is aimed at reducing national gas consumption by 20 percent over the next 10 years, a feat achieved through greater use of ethanol and other gasoline additives, as well as increasing fuel efficiency standards for vehicles.

"America is on the verge of technological breakthroughs that will enable us to live our lives less dependent on oil. These technologies will help us become better stewards of the environment -- and they will help us to confront the serious challenge of global climate change," Bush said.

He avoided the phrase "global warming," the description favored by scientists and environmental advocates.

But environmentalists and Democratic leaders, who have put the issue front-and-center on their agenda by creating a new House committee to address it, said the president's initiative falls short. His plan continues to reject a mandatory, economy-wide cap on greenhouse-gas emissions, and does not include any specifics about the fuel standards he would impose.

"It's a first step, but not sufficient," said Representative Edward J. Markey , a Malden Democrat who is Pelosi's choice to head the new climate-change committee. "The question is, rhetoric or reality? He has a greater confidence in voluntary compliance than the United States and the world can run the risk of allowing."

Phil Clapp , president of the National Environmental Trust, agreed. "It's kind of like the surge [of troops] in Iraq," Clapp said. "If he'd thought about it in 2001, it might have been a small but good start. But now, it is far too little, far too late."

Bush reiterated his call for a temporary worker program, which he said would ease pressure on America's borders and effectively control illegal immigration by giving foreign nationals a legal way to work in the United States. This brought Pelosi, and seconds later, Vice President Dick Cheney, also seated behind the rostrum, to their feet in applause.

"We need to uphold the great tradition of the melting pot that welcomes and assimilates new arrivals. And we need to resolve the status of the illegal immigrants who are already in our country -- without animosity and without amnesty," Bush said.

The president also urged Congress to help him balance the budget, limit the number of "earmarked" special projects quietly inserted in federal spending bills, and crack down on "junk lawsuits" clogging the courts. In a possible preview of judicial confirmation battles to come, he called on the Democratic Senate to give his court nominees "a prompt up-or-down vote on the Senate floor."