WASHINGTON (AP) – Republicans are closing ranks, Democrats voicing doubts, after President Bush’s State of the Union vow to use the “full force and might of the U.S. military” if needed to disarm Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.
“Unless we stand fast and stand strong, the forces of evil will not disappear,” House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), said last night after Bush’s speech before Congress and a global television audience that included U.S. troops in the Persian Gulf. “This is not the time for the timid leadership offered by the naysayers.”
But Bush had scarcely completed his condemnation of the Iraqi leader – including an explicit, prime time listing of Iraqi torture techniques -when Sen. Edward Kennedy issued a fresh challenge. “Instead of rushing down the path to war with Iraq, the American people deserve a full debate,” the Massachusetts Democrat said.
Congress voted last fall to authorize military action, but Kennedy said he wanted to require Bush to give Congress “convincing evidence of an imminent threat” before sending troops to war.
Half of the president’s speech -delivered to a crowded House chamber and with hundreds of protesters on the Capitol lawn outside – was devoted to domestic policy, a recognition that the economy needs mending and that the new GOP-controlled Congress is eager to tackle issues ranging from overhauling Medicare to curtailing abortion to limiting damage awards from medical malpractice lawsuits.
With the polls showing a decline in support for his handling of the economy, Bush pressed Congress to give swift approval to the $674 billion in tax cuts.
“Jobs are created when the economy grows; the economy grows when Americans have more money to spend and invest; and the best, fairest way to make sure that Americans have that money is not to tax it away in the first place,” the president said.
Bush did not say so, but the centerpiece of his program, elimination of the tax on corporate dividends, has elicited almost universal opposition from Democrats, and few expressions of enthusiasm from Republicans.
Gov. Gary Locke of Washington, delivering the formal Democratic response, accused the administration of pursuing “upside down economics” that offered a tax cut tilted too heavily toward the wealthy and offered little by way of immediate stimulus.
Congressional Democrats generally support an alternative that would cut taxes by $300 per person this year, and offer billions of dollars to cash-strapped states.
In his speech, Bush also urged Congress to act this year on his $400 billion, 10-year plan to “overhaul and strengthen Medicare.” Seniors who like their current coverage should be permitted to retain it, he said. Others “should have the choice of a health plan that provides prescription drugs,” added the president, who was traveling to Grand Rapids, Mich., Wednesday to stump for program.
At the same time, the administration was dispatching Secretary of State Colin Powell and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld to the Capitol on Wednesday to bring members of the House up to date on the looming conflict with Iraq.
Bush said he would send Powell to the United Nations next week to “present information and intelligence about Iraq’s illegal weapons program.”
He said the Iraqi leader has not accounted for up to 25,000 liters of anthrax, 38,000 liters of botulinin toxin, 500 tons of sarin, mustard gas and VX nerve agent and some 30,000 munitions that can be equipped with chemical weapons.
“Some have said we must not act until the threat is imminent,” Bush said. “Trusting in the sanity and restraint of Saddam Hussein is not a strategy, and it is not an option.”
Key allies, including France and Germany, oppose military action in Iraq at present and want Bush to give U.N. weapons inspectors more time. On that point, the president said, “We will consult, but let there be no misunderstanding. If Saddam Hussein does not fully disarm, for the safety of our people, and for the peace of the world, we will lead a coalition to disarm him.”
Bush added that the United States seeks peace, but a “future lived at the mercy of terrible threats is no peace at all. … And if war is forced upon us, we will fight with the full force and might of the United States military, and we will prevail.”
Locke, who was tapped by Democratic congressional leaders to speak for the party, urged Bush to seek international support first. “We need allies today, in 2003, just as much as we needed them in Desert Storm and just as we needed them on D-Day in 1944,” he said.
Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, the House Democratic leader, said Bush “did not make a convincing case that the use of force now is the only way to disarm Iraq, or that removing Saddam from power would guarantee that a new regime would not pursue the same policies.”
She added, “The clear and present danger that our country faces is terrorism, and the president did not explain how a war with Iraq would not compromise our efforts against terrorists.”
Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., a presidential hopeful, said the administration has failed to make a case to its allies or the American people and has a “unilateral, overbearing, high-handed way of interaction.”