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US President Faces Controversies Ahead of State of Union Address


Less than one week before he delivers his State of the Union Address to Congress and the nation, President Bush faces criticism from opposition Democrats challenging him over such issues as domestic surveillance in the war on terrorism, and continuing poor public approval ratings. At the same time, the president has momentum from positive economic figures, and is expected to urge Congress to act on key items on his domestic agenda.

In his last State of the Union address President Bush was riding the wave of the 2004 election victory over Democrat John Kerry, which gave the president a second four-year term in the White House.

Vowing to spend what he called "political capital," Mr. Bush at the time focused on his most ambitious domestic priority, reform of the U.S. Social Security pension system, along with other items such as tax reform and renewal of the anti-terror Patriot Act.

However, by almost any measure 2005 did not produce the results Mr. Bush hoped for, even taking into account the reduced flexibility presidents usually have to move their agendas through Congress during second terms.

Social Security efforts foundered early in 2005, and although the administration claimed key victories on energy and other issues, these were often overshadowed by the impact of scandals and investigations.

These included the CIA leak case, in which a top White House adviser was indicted, and the federal investigation into bribery and corruption involving lobbyist Jack Abramoff and members of Congress.

Hurricane Katrina, which devastated the U.S. Gulf Coast last year, also battered the Bush administration. President Bush accepted responsibility for a deficient government response.

In his address Tuesday, President Bush will be able to point to important voting successes in Iraq last year, and progress in Afghanistan.

However, lawmakers remain deeply divided over U.S. strategies there, and in the war on terrorism, while Osama Bin-Laden remains at large and able to threaten the United States with new attacks.

Senate Democratic Minority Leader Harry Reid, says the president needs to level with Americans about a range of issues.

"When the president speaks next week, he faces a choice," he said. "[He can] offer a fresh start or more of the same. He can continue to speak in platitudes, like we have seen in the last five State of the Union [speeches], or he can choose to come clean on Iraq, corruption and how the Republican party's wrong priorities are holding America back."

Republicans accuse Democrats of trying to score early political points in advance of next November's mid-term legislative elections.

As they try to stop the political damage from such issues as the Abramoff scandal, House Speaker Dennis Hastert says Republicans will stay focused.

"We have a full agenda immediately following the State of the Union Address," he said. "It includes the Deficit Reduction Act, the Patriot Act, Immigration Reform, and enacting lobbying reform. It's a full plate. But I am confident we will get it done and then move on to other legislative priorities that will help the economy stay strong, keep our job base growing, and our nation secure."

Congressman David Dreier, a key figure in the Republican House leadership, acknowledges broad changes are needed on the question of lobbying reform.

"We clearly have seen very, very great problems," he said. "The present laws have been violated, and we know there needs to be a way to address the concerns that have been raised all the way across the spectrum."

President Bush and key officials have been conducting a public relations campaign to persuade Americans on the need for what is now being called the Terrorist Surveillance Program.

Under pressure from both sides of the political aisle, the president insisted during a visit to the National Security Agency that he had the full authority to approve the program.

"I have the authority, both from the Constitution and the Congress, to undertake this vital program," he said. "The American people expect me to protect their lives, and their civil liberties, and that is exactly what we are doing with this program."

To what extent he touches on the controversy during his State of the Union Address is not known.

However, the issue is certain to remain in the headlines, as the Senate Judiciary Committee begins hearings February 6, with Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez a key witness.

In coming weeks, there will be new debate on extending key provisions of the Patriot Act anti-terror law, along with a lobbying reform bill Republicans hope to have ready by the end of February, as well as immigration reform and energy issues.

House Republicans will have to manage all of this while under new leadership, after a scheduled February 2 election to replace former Majority Leader Tom DeLay, who was forced to step down last year while facing criminal charges in Texas.

Republicans and the White House are also braced for new developments, including possible indictments, in the Abramoff influence-pedaling investigation, which promises to keep the question of ethics in the spotlight for some time.

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