WASHINGTON (AP) – A politically weakened President Bush implored a skeptical Congress last night to embrace his unpopular plan to send more U.S. troops to Iraq, saying it represents the best hope in a war America must not lose. “Give it a chance to work,” he said.

Facing a political showdown with Democrats and Republicans alike, Bush was unyielding on Iraq in his annual State of the Union address. He also sought to revive his troubled presidency with proposals to expand health insurance coverage and to slash gasoline consumption by 20 percent in a decade.

Democrats – and even some Republicans – scoffed at his Iraq policy. Unmoved by Bush’s appeal, Democrats said the House and Senate would vote on resolutions of disapproval of the troop buildup.

“We need a new direction,” said freshman Sen. Jim Webb, picked by the Democrats to deliver their TV response. “The majority of the nation no longer supports the way this war is being fought; nor does the majority of our military,” said Webb, a Vietnam veteran opposed to Bush’s invasion of Iraq.

Republican Sen. Norm Coleman of Minnesota, also took issue with Bush. “I can’t tell you what the path to success is, but it’s not what the president has put on the table,” he said.

It was a night of political theater as Bush went before the first Democratic-controlled Congress in a dozen years with his lowest approval ratings in polls.

Democratic Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California, the first woman to lead the House, sat over Bush’s shoulder, next to Vice President Dick Cheney. Reaching out to the Democrats, Bush opened with a tribute to Pelosi and paused to shake her hand. He also asked for prayers for Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson, hospitalized for more than a month after suffering a brain hemorrhage, and Republican Georgia Rep. Charlie Norwood, suffering from cancer.

The speech audience included up to a dozen House and Senate members who have announced they are running for president or are considered possible contenders.

Bush divided his 49-minute address between domestic and foreign issues, but the war was topic No. 1.

Pelosi set the tone for Democrats. She sat silently and did not applaud as Bush warned of high stakes in Iraq and said American forces must not step back before Baghdad is secure.

With Congress poised to deliver a stinging rebuke on his troop increase, he made a personal plea to lawmakers.

“I have spoken with many of you in person. I respect you and the arguments you made,” Bush said. “We went into this largely united, in our assumptions and in our convictions. And whatever you voted for, you did not vote for failure.”

“Our country is pursuing a new strategy in Iraq and I ask you to give it a chance to work,” Bush said. “And I ask you to support our troops in the field and those on their way.”

Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid gave Bush a swift answer. “While the president continues to ignore the will of the country, Congress will not ignore this president’s failed policy,” they said in a joint statement after his address. “His plan will receive an up-or-down vote in both the House and Senate, and we will continue to hold him accountable for changing course in Iraq.”

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