Reaction, like Congress, split down middle

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON - With the president's address before a bitterly divided Congress serving as a kick-off to his re-election campaign, Republicans and Democrats, including those who are hoping that last night's State of the Union speech was George W. Bush's last, reacted with especially strong words and emotions.

Republicans greeted the president, speaking on the third anniversary of his inauguration, with hearty applause and frequent standing ovations and praised his discussions of the fight against terrorism and domestic proposals such as increasing access to health care and creating jobs.


But on several key points - such as Bush's proposal to make his tax cuts permanent and his demand that the Patriot Act, intended to help track terrorists in the United States, be renewed - Democrats sat quiet and still as Republicans rose to their feet.

"He almost sought out partisan division," said Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the Democratic whip. "He's right we have choices. But the choices he's making, the American people don't agree with."


Not surprisingly, Democrats in Congress, including presidential contenders who watched from New Hampshire, denounced Bush's proposals and assessments as out of touch with everyday Americans and only benefiting the wealthy.

They noted that, under Bush's stewardship, more than 2.3 million jobs have been lost and deficits have skyrocketed while, on the foreign policy front, American casualties continue to mount in Iraq.

"The president didn't come to grips with the twin deficits - the budget deficit and the trade deficit," said Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes of Maryland. "The economy is not on track. We're down 2 1/2 million jobs. This is the first administration since Herbert Hoover not to produce a net growth in jobs."

Maryland Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, said the president made "magnificent promises" such as helping Americans gain skills for good-paying jobs and reducing the costs of health care and the number of uninsured. But, he added, "Considering the president's dismal track record of creating a greater sense of personal security for families and individuals, can we really expect President Bush to keep his promises this year?"

Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin said he wished there had been more discussion of balancing the budget and issues that both sides of the aisle could rally behind.

Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski said she was pleased with Bush's talk of resources for homeland security but would prefer a "risk-based strategy" in which states such as Maryland, which are close to the nation's capital and thus potentially at greater risk, would receive more money than, say, Wyoming.

Republicans, in contrast, lauded Bush for his proposals on both the national security and domestic fronts.

House Speaker Dennis Hastert said Bush "has the right strategy to stop those terrorists before they hit America again."


Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett of Maryland called most of Bush's speech "predictable" but praised his leadership, saying, "Saddam Hussein is in custody and the United States is assisting in an orderly transition to a peaceful Iraq that will no longer threaten its neighbors in this crucial region."

Domestically, he said "tax cuts are working to revitalize the economy," and he noted that the president and Congress delivered on a promise of providing a prescription drug coverage for seniors in Medicare.

Maryland's other Republican House member, Wayne T. Gilchrest said he was especially pleased with Bush's proposal to allow small businesses to band together to get lower rates for health care coverage for their employees. And he said he was intrigued by the "prisoner re-entry" program.

"I've visited some of my former high school students who have spent time in jail," said Gilchrest, a former teacher. "That's hugely important."

Many Democrats sounded themes last night that have become familiar to the public over the past several months - the volatility of post-war Iraq, the Bush tax cuts and the increasing deficit.

Some of the Democratic presidential candidates took the opportunity to renew their swipes at Bush last night.


Emboldened from his second-place finish in Iowa, Sen. John Edwards said, "When the president says, 'The state of our union is strong,' you need to ask, 'Which union, Mr. President?' The state of George Bush's union - the America of the Washington lobbyists, special interest and his CEO friends - is doing just fine. ... But in our America, the union for working Americans is a struggle every day."

Howard Dean, the former Vermont governor whose campaign was propelled by his early opposition to the war in Iraq, echoed the populist remarks, saying, "President Bush offered a stale agenda that aids the special interests and does very little for working Americans."

Retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark called Bush's proposals "smoke and mirrors designed to hide the stark fact that he has no real plan for our future."

In their televised response to the president's speech, Sen. Tom Daschle and Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic leaders in Congress, criticized as ineffectual Bush's efforts on homeland security, education, health care, job creation and the economy, and denounced what they called his "go-it-alone" foreign policy and a "radical doctrine of pre-emptive war unprecedented in our history."

"American taxpayers are bearing almost all the cost - a colossal $120 billion and rising," Pelosi said. "More importantly, American troops are enduring almost all the casualties - tragically, 500 killed and thousands more wounded." Daschle noted that Bush acknowledged the rising cost of health care and increasing number of uninsured, but said, "the solutions he proposed - more tax cuts - are not the right ones."

Sun staff writer Tom Bowman contributed to this article.