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    Democrats Respond to Bush State of Union Speech

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    In their response to his State of the Union address, Democrats have vowed to hold President Bush accountable on Iraq and domestic issues.

    The traditional response was delivered by the Democratic Minority leaders in the House and Senate, Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi and Senator Harry Reid.

    In the days before the President's speech, both had voiced the key positions Democrats have adopted toward the Bush second term agenda.

    But in their response to the President, the Democratic leaders hammered away at the main point they have been making about Iraq. "Now we must consider our future in Iraq," said Mrs. Pelosi. "We all know the United States cannot stay in Iraq indefinitely and continue to be viewed as an occupying force. Neither should we slip out the back door, falsely declaring victory but leaving chaos. Despite the best efforts of our troops and their Iraqi counterparts, Iraq still faces a violent and persistent insurgency, and the chairman of the national intelligence council said in January that Iraq has become a magnet for international terrorists. We have never heard a clear plan from this Administration for ending our presence in Iraq."

    In his speech, the President went some way toward addressing lawmaker's concerns that he has not done enough to persuade European allies and others to help in Iraq. That's not likely to be enough for members of Congress who want to see proof progress is being made.

    The Democratic response also focused on the most important domestic aspect of President Bush's speech, reforming the U.S. pension system known as social security.

    Before the State of the Union address, Democrats accused the President of using scare tactics to persuade Americans to support his plan to partially privatize social security with new private investment accounts.

    Senator Reid addressed this in his part of the Democratic response, calling the President's plan dangerous: "There is a lot we can do to improve American's retirement security, but it is wrong to replace the guaranteed benefit that Americans have earned, with a guaranteed benefit cut of 40 percent or more. Make no mistake, that is exactly what President Bush is proposing" he said.

    In his speech, President Bush said U.S. forces will increasingly focus on efforts to prepare Iraq's security forces to defend the country, but refused to discuss a timetable for withdrawing U.S. troops. He went some way toward addressing lawmaker's concerns he has not done enough to persuade European allies and others to help in Iraq, saying he would seek to build coalitions.

    That's not likely to be enough for members of Congress who want to see proof progress is being made.

    In his speech, President Bush said his proposed changes to social security would not result in any changes for Americans who are 55 years of age or older, adding that he would work with Congress to find, what he called, the most effective combination of reforms.

    Democrats also fault the President on the question of strengthening U.S. defenses against another terrorist attack such as that on September 11, 2001.

    House Democratic leader Pelosi said gaps in security, revealed in detail by the report of the independent September 11th commission that investigated intelligence failures, have not been eliminated: "We can and we must keep the world's most gruesome weapons out of the world's most dangerous hands. Nothing is more important to our national security, and indeed to the safety of the world," he said. "For three years, the President has failed to put together a comprehensive plan to protect America from terrorism and we did not hear one tonight."

    The White House has repeatedly dismissed the Democratic complaint, which also coincided with Senate hearings on the confirmation of the President's nominee to head the Department of Homeland Security.

    In their response, Democrats were again signaling they have no intention of buckling (collapsing) in the face of a Bush agenda Republicans hope to move quickly through Congress.

    Senate Democratic Minority leader Reid put it this way in Wednesday's response to the President: "When we believe the president is on the right track, we wont let partisan interests get in the way of what is good for our country. We will be first in line to work with him, but when he gets off track, we will be there to hold him accountable," he said.

    After the State of the Union is traditionally the time Congress really starts its legislative work, and Social Security is at the top of the Republican agenda, followed by a range of other bills on everything from transportation and energy to tax reform, immigration and education.

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