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In final agenda, a turn homeward

The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON -- With time for achievements dwindling, President Bush unveiled proposals for urban education and assistance to military families during his final State of the Union address last night, and he urged Congress to complete "unfinished business," including war funding and the fight against terrorism.

Bush said he wants to spend $300 million on grants for children to attend parochial and private schools in cities where public schools are failing, one of a handful of new proposals he outlined last night. Aides said the speech was designed to be forward-looking, but most of the themes were familiar, and it nonetheless reflected scaled-down expectations for a lame-duck administration.

"In this election year, let us show our fellow Americans that we recognize our responsibilities and are determined to meet them," Bush said. "Let us show them that Republicans and Democrats can compete for votes and cooperate for results at the same time."

Saying that the economy is "undergoing a period of uncertainty," Bush repeated his call for quick passage of the economic stimulus plan that his administration and House leaders negotiated last week, without additional spending being considered by the Senate. The proposal would send checks - at least $300 and in many cases $1,200 - to millions of households through a bipartisan agreement that provides the framework for the White House and the Democratic-controlled Congress to reach accord in other areas, administration aides said.

With attention increasingly turning to the presidential race, Bush and his aides acknowledged that a Congress controlled by Democrats will almost certainly not adopt plans to create private Social Security accounts or tackle immigration reform. While Bush has emphasized those issues in past speeches, his brief references to them last night were short on specifics.

Bush said that by continuing to "trust the people," the state of the union would "remain strong." Americans should be confident about growth in the long run even as the economy is slowing, he said. Making tax cuts adopted in 2001 and 2003 permanent would remove uncertainty, he said.

Democrats such as Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of Baltimore said the president glossed over hardships affecting urban neighborhoods and called the condition of the country "dismal."

"The state of our union is evident in the number of 'for sale' signs that we pass before we even hit the first 'stop' sign on our way to our jobs," Cummings said in a statement.

In a Democratic response to the speech, Gov. Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas said Americans "have no more patience for divisive politics." She asked Bush to take part in a nonpartisan agenda, including efforts to reduce global warming and "a more effective war on terror."

As part of a plan to limit federal spending, Bush announced earlier yesterday a new administration effort to limit earmarks, the legislative language that directs federal funding toward lawmakers' favored projects.

In his speech, Bush pledged to veto future appropriations bills that they do not cut by half the $17 billion in earmarks in the current year's budget. The White House said Bush would sign an executive order today that directs federal agencies to ignore earmarks that are not contained in laws but are included in accompanying committee reports, which the White House considers unenforceable.

Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, a Maryland Democrat, said limits on spending should be negotiated between the White House and Congress. Some rules could have unintended consequences, he said.

"A lot of what he characterizes as earmarks are programs that will not be funded unless the Congress puts them in the budget," Cardin said. "Some of our Chesapeake Bay programs, for example, have always been put in by the Congress."

Budget experts say that reducing earmarks will have little impact on the federal budget, because the money will probably be spent anyway - just not on designated projects.

The real cost of the deficit, said Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, was the "lavish" tax-code cuts promoted by Bush.

"I would be willing to trade every earmark for every tax cut that he gave for people who didn't need it," the Maryland Democrat said.

Bush said he wanted to "trust the creative genius of American researchers" for progress on clean energy technology and other issues. He said he was expanding funding to study the use of stem cells created through reprogrammed adult skin cells rather than human embryos.

"He talks about an energy future, but as an oilman he has been protecting fossil fuel industries," said Democratic Rep. John Sarbanes of Baltimore County.

Bush said that an April meeting of U.S., Canadian and Mexican leaders would be held in New Orleans to put the "resilience" of the Gulf Coast on display.

The president delivered his annual address under starkly different circumstances from a year ago, when Democrats had just won control of Congress and he had authorized additional troops into Iraq to quell violence and create opportunity for political progress.

Since then, the buildup has improved security, and the economy has overtaken Iraq as the top voter concern.

"While the enemy is still dangerous and more work remains, the American and Iraqi surges have achieved results few of us could have imagined just one year ago," he said to applause from both Democrats and Republicans gathered in the Capitol.

But the past year also revealed horrid conditions at outpatient health facilities for returning veterans and exacerbated the strain on military families struggling with longer and more frequent deployments.

Bush urged Congress to adopt new rules giving preference to military spouses applying for federal jobs. He also wants spouses and children to have access to G.I. Bill education benefits left unused by a family member in the military.

He repeated his call for Congress to adopt procedures that allow the nation's spies to intercept overseas communications that involve U.S. residents. A temporary version of the program approved last year expires Friday. Illustrating long-standing friction over civil liberties, Democrats sat silently in the House chamber while Republicans rose in applause in response to the president's urging for a renewal.

david.nitkin@baltsun.com matthew.brown@baltsun.com

Highlights

Economy: Urged Congress to quickly approve the $150 billion economic stimulus plan agreed to with House leaders, including tax rebate checks to 117 million households and $50 billion in business tax incentives. Also called for permanent tax cuts.

Spending: Announced efforts to limit earmarks, the legislative language that directs federal spending toward favored projects of lawmakers. Promised to veto bills that fail to cut these pet projects by half.

Education: Proposed $300 million in grants for children to attend parochial and private schools in cities where public schools are failing and announced plans for a summit to identify ways of strengthening these schools.

Iraq: Declared last year's troop buildup a success, saying, "Al-Qaida is on the run in Iraq, and this enemy will be defeated."

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