Response to Bush Speech Mixed on Capitol Hill

President Bush's final State of the Union address prompts praise from Republicans and a lukewarm reaction from many Democrats.

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DAVID WELNA, host:

I'm David Welna at the capitol.

Once again, reaction from lawmakers to this president's final State of the Union was split right down that broad carpeted aisle that separates Democrats from Republicans. On the one side, there was fond feeling. Florida Republican Senator Mel Martinez left behind all the primary eve excitement in his home state just to come hear President Bush.

Senator MEL MARTINEZ (Republican, Florida): I was here for President Bush's first and I very much wanted to be here for his last. I thought it was a very forceful and strong speech and I thought he laid out a very vigorous agenda for his last year.

WELNA: Still, Martinez readily acknowledged that in this lame duck election year Congress is unlikely to give the president much of what's on that agenda.

Sen. MARTINEZ: It's sad to think that a lot of it has been pending for a long time already, you know, things like the associated health plans, any number of items that there's unanimous applause when he brings them up. But then we don't seem to get it done.

WELNA: Including immigration reform, which Martinez sees as having no chance this year after last year's collapse. For his part, Ohio House Republican Steve Chabot said he was struck by the president's warning that he'll veto any appropriations bill that does not cut in half the value and number of congressional earmarks.

Representative STEVE CHABOT (Republican, Ohio): I think the president is exactly right. Congress for many years has wasted far too much money on things like bridges to nowhere. And I hope the president is serious. I hope he sticks to his guns. If he's willing to do that I think a lot of members of Congress will go right with him on that.

WELNA: Not Virginia Democrat Jim Moran, who's on the House Appropriations Committee. President Bush and his fellow Republicans, Moran said, cannot be taken seriously when it comes to earmarks.

Representative JIM MORAN (Democrat, Virginia): For six years they control the Congress. And for six years earmarks exploded under the Republican chairman. And now when the Democrats take it over, all of the sudden he's noticed that there are earmarks in those bills? He never vetoed one of them.

WELNA: Florida House Democrat Debbie Wasserman Schultz was equally skeptical of President Bush's plea for Congress to strengthen his signature No Child Left Behind school improvement program.

Representative DEBBIE WASSERMAN SCHULTZ (Democrat, Florida): There are a lot of problems with No Child Left Behind that need to be ironed out. And the only solution that I heard from him tonight was another form of voucher, for private schools and faith-based schools. I mean vouchers have never been the solution. They won't ever be the solution. But making a real commitment in terms of funding and reform for public education is the only thing that's going to work.

WELNA: When the president veered from domestic to foreign matters, South Carolina Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, for one, thought Mr. Bush delivered the best speech of his presidency.

Senator LINDSEY GRAHAM (Republican, South Carolina): It was somber and thoughtful. I think he realizes what he's been through, what the country has been through. And there's been dramatic progress in Iraq, and I hope we'll stop this effort of having politicians trying to take over the war. Let General Petraeus decide when the troops should come home. He wants them home as much as anybody.

WELNA: But for Illinois House Democrat Melissa Bean, the president's upbeat message of progress in Iraq was the same old same old.

Representative MELISSA BEAN (Democrat, Illinois): He makes the same case every time and the reality on the ground just hasn't changed. Now, true, there's been some military progress. But the political progress that was promised just hasn't materialized. And he keeps saying the Iraqi people are ready to step up, but where's the follow-through that says and as they stand up, we'll stand down?

WELNA: As the president spoke, many eyes in the House Chamber were on Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, the two Democratic senators who've been clashing in state after state as they vie to be the next person who'll deliver the State of the Union. The other senator who's still a presidential contender, Republican John McCain, stayed in Florida for a last night of campaigning there before today's primary.

Missouri Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill said the white hot presidential race was the big elephant in the room during last night's State of the Union.

Senator CLAIRE McCASKILL (Democrat, Missouri): It felt like it overshadowed it a lot to me, because everything the president said I kept saying, oh, next year it'll be better.

(Soundbite of laughter)

WELNA: One thing that's absolutely certain is that it will be a different person facing Congress next January.

David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.

NEARY: You can download the president's speech and the Democratic response at npr.org.

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Bush Lauds Progress in Iraq, Economic Plan

President Bush delivered his last State of the Union address to Congress Monday night, a speech dominated by his description of a policy shift that he said had brought success and the promise of victory in Iraq.

The president said that a year ago, the situation in Iraq was approaching chaos. But he said the promotion of a new commander, Gen. David Petraeus, and a new "surge" strategy, combined with additional troops, had reduced violence and begun a process by which Iraqis might take over their own security.

"Some may deny the surge is working, but among the terrorists there is no doubt," Bush said. "Al-Qaida is on the run in Iraq, and this enemy will be defeated."

At the same time, the president warned that withdrawing U.S. troops from the situation too quickly could bring al-Qaida roaring back and allow sectarian fighting to resume. Bush said 20,000 troops were coming home and would not be replaced, but that further withdrawals would await the judgment of commanders in the field.

"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.

Tax Cuts and the Stimulus Package

The president also urged Congress to pass the $150 billion economic stimulus package he had worked out with leaders of both parties in both chambers. He said it would relieve anxiety about a slowdown in job growth and a decline in the housing market. He did not use the word recession.

"To build a prosperous future," he said, "we must trust people with their own money and empower them to grow our economy. "

Congress could also send positive signals to consumers by extending tax cuts originally passed in his first term, the president said, rather than letting them expire, as scheduled, beginning in 2010.

Taking on Earmarks

As an added prescription, the president said Congress could wean itself off its habit of earmarking dollars in appropriations bills to pay for special projects in individual states and districts. He also chastised Congress for refusing to approve his proposals for overhauling Social Security and immigration laws, the main thrusts of his domestic policy in his second term.

"Illegal immigration is complicated, but it can be resolved," he vowed. "And it must be resolved in a way that upholds both our laws and our highest ideals."

The speech was about 50 minutes long and was interrupted often by applause, as is traditional in these events. Republicans, sitting to the president's left, often rose in standing and cheering ovations. Most Democrats remained seated through most of these, applauding politely. But the mood in the chamber seemed more cordial than in past years, perhaps because the Congress senses the administration winding down.

Here, NPR reporters analyze key aspects of the president's address, summarizing his proposals and their prospects.

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