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Energy, education plans win bipartisan support


WASHINGTON -- President Bush won bipartisan support from Maryland's congressional delegation last night for his proposals to promote energy independence and bolster the nation's global competitiveness in math and science. But both Republicans and Democrats said they wanted to wait and see whether Bush backs up his State of the Union ideas with money and political capital.

Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Democrat, said she is ready to work with Bush on his proposed "American Competitiveness Initiative," which provides money for science and math education, and for research and tax incentives for innovation.

Bush's ideas are similar to those contained in legislation being pushed by a bipartisan group of lawmakers, including Mikulski.

"A country that doesn't innovate, stagnates," she said. "If we're going to be safer, if we're going to be stronger, we truly have to act smarter."

Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, a Republican from Western Maryland, also was cheered by Bush's talk of keeping the American economy strong through larger investments in science. But the proposal needs to go even further and spend even more, he said.

"I think the challenge is big enough that we need a bigger commitment than that," Bartlett said.

Bartlett and Rep. Albert R. Wynn, a Democrat from Prince George's County, also were excited by Bush's call for the country to "break the addiction" to foreign oil through the development of new energy technology.

Wynn said he wants to see the administration devote more federal funding to academic research and private-sector efforts to advance the use of hydrogen as a fuel source.

"We're looking for a long-term commitment, somewhat akin to the commitment we made to put a man in space" in the 1960s, said Wynn, a leader of a bipartisan group of House members that promotes the development of hydrogen and fuel-cell technology.

Republican Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, who represents the Eastern Shore, said Bush "laid out policies that are achievable." And even Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, the No. 2 Democrat in the House, said he could support the education and energy proposals - if, he said, they are what Bush made them out to be.

But the problem, Hoyer and other Democrats said, is that Bush talked about the war in Iraq, rebuilding the lives of victims of Hurricane Katrina, and other big-ticket spending items, while at the same time advocating for smaller government, fiscal restraint and permanent tax cuts.

"There was not one word in the speech about how he was going to pay for Iraq, New Orleans, AIDS, math and science, energy independence, or any of the initiatives he wanted to pursue," said Hoyer, who represents Southern Maryland. "The president's only comment on anything fiscal was tax cuts. Tax cuts are not going to pay for any of his initiatives."

Democratic Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes echoed those remarks.

"Again, we're down this path of deficit and debts because he's emphasizing above everything making the tax cuts permanent - and those excessive tax cuts are what got us into this in the first place," Sarbanes said.

"It just doesn't add up," said Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, a Democrat from the Baltimore area who is seeking his party's nomination to replace the retiring Sarbanes in this fall's election.

Bush's health care proposals drew fire from Democrats, who questioned whether promoting health savings accounts, which would allow people to save money tax-free to pay for medical care, would squeeze out the working poor, who can least afford a weakening of an already thin safety net.

"They can't pay the money up front, so it doesn't work very well for them," Wynn said.

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat, noted that when Bush brought up Katrina's victims and the devastation in New Orleans, the mention was brief - in sharp contrast to his commitment last fall to rebuild that city.

"President Bush, as always, talked about the fact that he's a conservative and a compassionate person," Cummings said. "Once again, he was long on conservative and short on compassion."

Cummings also derided what he called Bush's "same old, same old" arguments on Iraq.

Gilchrest, a decorated Vietnam veteran who has called on the administration to be more forthcoming about its exit plan for Iraq, agreed with Bush's assertions that victory depends on more than just battlefield combat. But he said it's "irresponsible" to suggest that politicians have no role in shaping U.S. policy.

"The complexity of Iraq ... requires the policymakers - the president and the Congress - to work with the commanders in the field," he said. "And it's our decision when the conflict should end."

Regardless of their feelings about the words, lawmakers said they appreciated, as always, the ceremonial scope of the speech.

There were some light moments, too. During Bush's speech, Cardin sat next to former Rep. Kweisi Mfume, considered his chief rival for the Democratic nomination.

"We enjoyed an opportunity to share a moment, criticizing the president's speech," Cardin said.

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