WASHINGTON -- President Bush appealed to a recalcitrant Congress and an anxious public last night to give his Iraq troop increase a chance, seeking to revive his waning influence with plans to reduce gasoline usage and expand access to health coverage.
Bush offered a conciliatory tone and a suite of proposals on hot-button domestic issues for his first State of the Union before a Democratic Congress, one in which his aides said he was trying to be gracious and acknowledge a new dynamic on Capitol Hill.
"Congress has changed, but not our responsibilities," Bush said, after congratulating Democrats for their victories.
With his poll numbers sagging and war criticism swirling, the president called on Congress to work with him on issues of shared concern such as energy and health care. He renewed his calls for an immigration overhaul that would allow some illegal immigrants the chance to become citizens and a reauthorization of the "No Child Left Behind" education law.
"We are not the first to come here with government divided and uncertainty in the air. Like many before us, we can work through our differences and achieve big things for the American people," Bush said.
Singling out House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Bush said he had the "high privilege and distinct honor" of being the first president to begin his annual address with the words "Madam Speaker."
"In his day, the late Congressman Thomas D'Alesandro Jr., from Baltimore, Md., saw Presidents Roosevelt and Truman at this rostrum. But nothing could compare with the sight of his only daughter, Nancy, presiding tonight as speaker of the House of Representatives," Bush said, turning to clasp hands with a beaming Pelosi as he began his 50-minute speech.
But the specter of Iraq hung heavily over the speech, which came a day after House and Senate Republicans signaled grave reservations about Bush's 21,500 troop build-up, adding their skeptical voices to the nearly unanimous chorus of Democrats who oppose the move.
The president acknowledged the doubts - "I respect you, and the arguments you have made," he said - but he made it clear that he was not about to change his mind.
"Whatever you voted for, you did not vote for failure," Bush said. "Our country is pursuing a new strategy in Iraq, and I ask you to give it a chance to work."
Democrats tapped Sen. James Webb of Virginia, a Vietnam veteran who has been a vocal critic of Bush's war strategy, to give their official response. He had scathing criticism for the president, who he said "took us into this war recklessly" and had bungled every aspect of it and whom he blamed for presiding over an economy where "benefits are not being fairly shared" with the average worker.
Invoking the examples of Theodore Roosevelt and Dwight D. Eisenhower, two popular Republican presidents who he said took on steep economic and national security challenges, Webb called on Bush to turn things around on both fronts: "If he does, we will join him. If he does not, we will be showing him the way."
Republicans, for their part, said the president had provided a basis for bipartisan compromise on important issues.
Bush "outlined an agenda that addresses our nation's most pressing challenges and lays the groundwork for continued economic growth and prosperity," Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona, the Senate's No. 3 Republican, said in a statement.
The president "brought serious proposals to the table to begin the debate," Kyl added.
Rep. John A. Boehner of Ohio, the House Republican leader, said Bush had "laid out a series of ambitious proposals addressing the nation's priorities, and I hope Congress will give each a fair hearing. If Democrat leaders are going to oppose the president's agenda, they have an obligation to present their own alternatives."
Bush defended his choice to add troops amid raging sectarian violence in Baghdad and elsewhere in Iraq, first announced in a speech he gave two weeks ago from the White House.
"Our military commanders and I have carefully weighed the options. We discussed every possible approach," Bush said. "In the end, I chose this course of action because it provides the best chance for success."
He did not specifically mention the tangle of measures opposing the strategy that could come before Congress in the coming weeks and instead focused on articulating the stakes for Americans if the mission in Iraq were to fail, something he called a "nightmare scenario."
"Nothing is more important at this moment in our history than for America to succeed in the Middle East, to succeed in Iraq, and to spare the American people from this danger," Bush said.
Pelosi and Senate Majority Harry Reid of Nevada said they welcomed the bipartisan spirit in which Bush spoke but in a joint statement said he "continues to ignore the will of the country" on Iraq and promised an "up-or-down" vote on his plan.
Bush faced an audience that reflected a new and very different political reality from the one surrounding his past appearances in the well of the House: one where Democrats outnumbered Republicans in a crowd dotted with the faces of presidential aspirants of both parties, whose intense competition is already diverting attention and influence from the current White House occupant.
The president laid out a narrowly tailored set of domestic proposals designed to build on possible areas of compromise with Democrats, but it was fraught with risks and challenges.
Aiming to make a splash with a proposal to reduce gasoline consumption by 20 percent within 10 years, Bush called weaning the country off oil a national-security imperative. He said he would do so by substantially increasing federal mandates for the amount of ethanol blended into fuel each year - a step the White House said would reduce gasoline usage by 15 percent. In addition, Bush proposed raising fuel efficiency standards for cars, which could displace gas by an additional 5 percent.
Taking a new - and somewhat controversial - approach to expanding health insurance access, the president proposed making employer-provided coverage taxable, then creating a standard deduction of $15,000 per family or $7,500 per individual for those receiving it or purchasing their own private plan.
He said he would work with Health and Human Services Secretary Michael O. Leavitt to help states find ways to help uninsured patients afford private health coverage.
Bush plans to take his domestic proposals on the road starting today, with remarks on his energy initiatives in Wilmington, Del., and a roundtable on his health care proposals tomorrow in Lee's Summit, Mo.
Many senior Democrats are adamantly opposed to Bush's new health care proposal, which would open at least some middle-class workers who receive generous employer-provided benefits - the White House estimates about 20 percent - to higher income taxes.
Rep. Pete Stark, a California Democrat who chairs a key health subcommittee, said he would not even hold hearings on the proposal, saying it would "make a bad problem worse."
Rep. Charles B. Rangel, a New York Democrat who chairs the Ways and Means Committee, said Bush "really should have done more to reach out to Democrats before his speech to see if we can come together, rather than simply exchange policies and press releases."
Democrats also say Bush's energy plans do not go far enough in encouraging the development of alternative fuel sources and combating global warming, such as through mandatory limits on carbon-dioxide emissions.
Some in Bush's own party are dead-set against his immigration plan, which crumbled last year amid conservative opposition to an approach that was branded as "amnesty" for lawbreakers.
Still, there were obvious attempts to reach out to Democrats and entice them with policy prescriptions they support. Bush promoted the potential benefits of his energy initiatives, for instance, on curbing carbon dioxide emissions believed to be a main culprit in global warming - a problem Democrats have vowed to address. Expanding the use of alternative fuels including ethanol also has substantial bipartisan appeal.
Many Democrats have backed Bush's immigration plan, which has a ready-made bipartisan coalition left over from last year's abortive attempt to enact a new law.
Bush "has been a leader on this issue, and I am hopeful that he will continue his efforts with members of his party so that we can pass legislation that will solve the problem once and for all," said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat who was a main sponsor of a Senate-passed immigration plan that tracked closely with the president's ideas.
Some Democrats also have supported the president's educational reforms, though many have complained since their 2001 enactment that Bush has shortchanged them in his annual budgets, and they are sure to oppose his call to move poor children in underperforming schools to private schools.
The president's speech also was notable for what it did not include.
Burned by his disastrous Social Security overhaul attempt in 2005, Bush steered clear of offering any specific plan for tackling the growth of huge government entitlement programs - Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid - that are eating up unsustainably large portions of the federal budget each year. He said only that policymakers were "failing in [the] duty" to fix them and invited Congress to join with him in doing so.
POINTS OF VIEW -- PRESIDENT BUSH'S AGENDA
THE ISSUE : Energy -- Cut gasoline usage by 20 percent over 10 years by mandating a substantial increase in the amount of ethanol used in fuel and raising fuel economy standards for passenger cars.
BUSH POSITION : Would wean the country from dependence on foreign oil, which is a national security risk. Would help combat climate change by cutting down on carbon dioxide emissions.
DEMOCRATIC POSITION: Would not go far enough quickly enough in reducing oil usage. Would not directly combat factors that contribute to global warming, such as through mandatory caps on carbon-dioxide emissions or a substantial increase in fuel economy standards for cars and trucks.
THE ISSUE: Health care -- Make employer-funded health insurance taxable income, and create a new standard deduction of $15,000 per family ($7,500 per individual) for the purchase of any health coverage.
BUSH POSITION: Would level the playing field between those who receive health care through an employer and those who purchase the insurance on their own, making it more affordable for people to buy their own plans. Would lower taxes for the majority of workers receiving employer-provided health insurance.
DEMOCRATIC POSITION: Would not help the poorest and sickest people, who might be unable to afford private health insurance, even with a new tax deduction, and would penalize middle-class workers whose employers offer generous health benefits. Would prompt more employers to stop offering health insurance coverage.
THE ISSUE: Education -- Reauthorize the "No Child Left Behind" law that sets achievement standards and testing requirements, and tighten the mandates.
BUSH POSITION: Would continue and enhance improvements in academic achievement realized since passage of the original law in 2001, keeping students competitive and helping struggling schools to improve.
DEMOCRATIC POSITION: Would not ensure adequate funding to reach the president's stated goals.
Julie Hirschfeld Davis
ENERGY -- Cut U.S. gasoline consumption 20 percent by 2017 by boosting mandates for production of ethanol and other alternative fuels and raising fuel-efficiency standards for passenger cars, light trucks and SUVs.
GLOBAL WARMING -- Cut emissions from cars and light trucks by 10 percent over 10 years. Stop the growth of greenhouse gas emissions from U.S. vehicles by 2017.
HEALTH INSURANCE -- Make employer-provided health insurance taxable income after a standard deduction of $15,000 for families and $7,500 for singles. Give some federal Medicare and Medicaid funding to states to help subsidize health insurance for individuals.
IMMIGRATION -- Pass comprehensive overhaul of immigration law. Create a temporary "guest-worker" program. Provide a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants already here.
EDUCATION -- Renew the No Child Left Behind Act.