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Congress Looks Forward to Hearing Bush on State of the Union

President Bush delivers his State of the Union address Wednesday. Members of Congress are eager to know more about the administration's goals in foreign and domestic policy in Mr. Bush's second term.

There may be no more prominent issue on the minds of lawmakers than Iraq, and what the Bush administration plans to do there in the aftermath of the Iraqi elections.

Senator Joe Biden of Delaware, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has often criticized the administration for lacking a clear plan in Iraq, following the toppling of the Saddam Hussein regime.

He says the State of the Union address is an opportunity for President Bush to be candid with Americans on the future of the U.S. mission in Iraq. "I hope there will be an attempt on the part of the President to give his best judgment to the American people of what is expected of them, because I believe they are prepared to do anything asked of them. But I do not think they are prepared to continue not to know, not have some honest sense of what will be expected of them," he said.

Republicans who make up the majority in Congress have similar questions.

Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, another member of the Foreign Relations Committee, wants to know if U.S. troop strength will change in the coming months. "How will that change from what we have been doing? Fewer troops, less troops? More NATO troops?"

The administration thus far has refused to offer a timetable for withdrawing troops from Iraq, and Mr. Bush has said the United States would remain until the new government can defend itself.

But that has not stopped some Democrats from arguing that it may be time to leave the country.

Senator Ted Kennedy, one of the most vocal critics of administration policy on Iraq, called on Mr. Bush to begin withdrawing 12 thousand of the 150,000 U.S. troops from the country immediately, and complete the pullout by next year. "We have reached the point that a prolonged American military presence in Iraq is no longer productive for either Iraq or the United States. The U.S. military presence has become part of the problem, not part of the solution," he said.

In the House of Representatives, a group of Democrats has introduced a troop pullout resolution on the floor, and Congressman Martin Meehan of Massachusetts has proposed withdrawing all but a force of 30 thousand by year's end.

Besides wanting to know the administration's military plans in Iraq, lawmakers also are interested in any new diplomatic initiatives that might be planned with Iraq, especially with Condoleezza Rice as the new Secretary of State.

Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi of California is the top Democrat in the House. "There is going to have to be a better effort to win the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people, so that reconstruction can take place, so that people can get jobs," she said. "We have not succeeded with that."

Lawmakers also want to know how the administration plans to repair relations with U.S. allies, frayed over the Iraq war.

On another foreign policy front, members of Congress hope Mr. Bush will use his State of the Union speech to talk more about his plans to promote freedom and democracy around the world.

Mr. Bush's inaugural address highlighting the bold initiative has some lawmakers concerned, including Senator Biden, who spoke on ABC television's "This Week".

"The real question is, is Bush sticking with the old neoconservative doctrine of concluding that, 'you are going to go in, and you are going to take down evil empires by force, or are we going to have a more nuanced policy and do what we can do, like in the Balkans, continue to deal with China the way we are by bringing them into the mainstream by engaging them in trade and so on. I do not see any sense of what the parameters of this new Bush policy is," he said.

Many Republicans note that the president has made clear that his inaugural address was not intended as a statement of new policy, but as a reflection of the strategy he pursued in his first term.

"He does not intend to go to war in every country that does not agree with us, but we ought to encourage and promote and stand up for people who believe in liberty," said Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama.

Still, Mr. Bush did not rule out the use of arms in promoting democracy and ending tyranny, and that has other Republicans, including Senator Hagel, issuing a cautionary note.

"America's experience in Iraq should give us pause about the use of force as a means to establish democracy, especially in countries where democracy has limited institutional roots," he said. "The only thing we know with certainty, is that however noble the purpose, war is dangerous, costly and unpredictable."

Other foreign policy questions on the minds of lawmakers include how the administration plans to address the threat of nuclear proliferation in North Korea and Iran, if the United States will take a more active role in the Middle East peace process now that the Palestinian Authority has a new president, and how the administration plans to stem the flow of illegal immigrants.

On the domestic front, lawmakers hope President Bush will address his plans to reform the social security retirement system. Many are concerned about the political risks and financial costs of overhauling the system by creating private investment accounts, a step that could cost up to two trillion dollars.

Members of Congress want to know how the President plans to pay for his ambitious agenda. Mr. Bush has made clear he does not intend to roll back tax cuts, and instead is seeking to make them permanent.

But he has vowed to reduce the deficit, and plans to do that by cutting federal spending. Those plans will be detailed when he sends Congress his budget for 2006 on February 7.