WASHINGTON – Facing an unstable economy and an unfinished war, President Bush used his final State of the Union address last night to call for quick passage of his tax rebate package, patience in Iraq and a modest concluding agenda that includes $300 million in scholarship money for low-income children in struggling schools.

With Senate Democrats already jockeying to amend the stimulus package that the administration negotiated with the House last week, Bush, in his address, urged lawmakers to resist the temptation to “load up the bill” with other provisions. To do so, he warned, “would delay or derail it, and neither option is acceptable.”

Yet Bush devoted relatively little of his 53-minute speech to the economy, the issue that is the top concern of voters during this election year. He spent far more time talking about the issue that has been his own primary concern, Iraq.

Bush made the case that his troop buildup had “achieved results few of us could have imagined just one year ago,” and reminded Americans that in coming months, 20,000 troops will have come home. Yet he avoided any timetable for further withdrawal and, if anything, seemed to be preparing the country for a far longer-term stay in Iraq, warning that a precipitous withdrawal could lead to a backslide in security.

“Members of Congress,” Bush said, “having come so far and achieved so much, we must not allow this to happen.”

The White House had promised that the speech would look forward, not back. Facing the realities of a final year in office, with little time to win legislation from a Congress controlled by Democrats, Bush used the address to emphasize his power to block actions that he opposes. He vowed to veto any tax increases or legislative earmarks that were not voted on by the full Congress.

But the speech, interrupted nearly 70 times by applause, was also infused with a sense of summing up, as Bush opened by remarking that “our country has been tested in ways none of us could imagine” since he delivered his first address to Congress, seven years ago.

“We have faced hard decisions about peace and war, rising competition in the world economy, and the health and welfare of our citizens,” Bush said. “These issues call for vigorous debate, and I think it’s fair to say we’ve answered that call. Yet history will record that amid our differences, we acted with purpose.”

Democrats responded by saying that Bush had offered “little more than the status quo,” in the words of the Senate Democratic leader, Harry Reid of Nevada, and the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi of California.

Yet the party’s official response was not criticism but a call for unity, delivered by Gov. Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas. Sebelius urged the president to build on the bipartisanship of the stimulus package – a sign that with the fall elections just 10 months away, Democrats are aware they must show voters they can work across the aisle.

“There is a chance, Mr. President, in the next 357 days, to get real results and give the American people renewed optimism that their challenges are the top priority,” Sebelius said.

Sheryl Gay Stolberg
The New York Times

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