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    Bush: US Economy is Sound Despite Problems

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    U.S. President George Bush says the U.S. economy is sound, despite a series of financial setbacks.  VOA's Paula Wolfson reports at a White House news conference Mr. Bush sought to reassure consumers unnerved by rising gas prices and uncertainty in the housing market.

    The president acknowledges this is a difficult time for American families, but he says the economy will eventually rebound.

    "We can have confidence in the long term foundation of our economy.  And I believe we will come through this challenge stronger than ever before," he said.

    Mr. Bush says his administration is already taking steps to deal with the nation's financial woes.   And he blames the Democratic Party-led U.S. Congress for holding up further action.

    He says lawmakers need to pass legislation to make sure major mortgage lenders are sound.   And he urges them to act swiftly to lift the congressional ban on offshore oil drilling.

    "Democratic leaders have been delaying action on offshore exploration and now they have an opportunity to show that they finally heard the frustrations of the American people," he added.

    On Monday, the president removed White House restrictions on offshore oil exploration.  But both the executive and legislative branches must act before new drilling can occur along America's coastlines.

    House Speaker Nancy Pelosi calls the president's oil exploration plan a hoax and urges the administration to tap the nation's emergency Strategic Petroleum Reserve.  Mr. Bush rejects that idea.  He says there is no short-term answer to the oil price problem, but adds a show of American resolve to expand domestic exploration would send a powerful signal to world markets.

    "I readily concede it is not going to produce a barrel of oil tomorrow, but it is going to change the psychology that demand will constantly outstrip supply," he noted.

    The president also used his press conference to urge Congress to approve a pending free-trade agreement with Colombia.  He said the pact will enable the United States to sell more goods in the Colombian market, and will help a strong U.S. ally in the region, President Alvaro Uribe.

    "Turning our back on somebody like Uribe makes no sense at all," he explained.  "He is a courageous fighter against terrorists and yet our Congress won't even bring up a free trade agreement with Colombia."

    The session with reporters was held on a day that the nation's largest automaker, General Motors, provided more bad economic news.

    Faced with slumping sales, the company announced cuts in production of trucks and other large vehicles.  It also said it would slash job benefits for its work force and retirees, such as health insurance and pensions, by 20 percent.

    The president did not speak directly about GM's fate.  But he did say the government would not provide a bail-out.

    "If your question is should the government bail-out private enterprise, the answer is no, it shouldn't," he said.

    Mr. Bush said the auto industry must adapt to changing consumer demands.  And he stressed the demand right now is for smaller, more fuel-efficient cars.

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