President Bush this week asked Congress to move forward with key items on his legislative agenda. In a wide-ranging speech on the economy, he urged lawmakers to approve controversial budget cuts, the subject of fierce partisan debate, and defended his tax policies.
In his speech, President Bush reiterated his commitment to the main pillars of his agenda, what he describes as his plan to restrain government spending, while reducing taxes and making tax cuts permanent. "The agenda starts with keeping taxes low, and restraining the spending appetite of the federal government. Tax relief left more money in the pockets of the people, and that has been a vital part of the growth of our economy," he said.
His comments came as Republican-led House and Senate committees continued the difficult task of trimming billions of dollars from government budget, a complex process that has opened the president to criticism from both ends of the political spectrum.
Opposition Democrats accuse Republicans of harming important social programs, such as Medicaid, in the course of finding ways to cut spending. Conservative Republicans are unhappy that Mr. Bush has not pushed for deeper cuts in government spending.
Democrats took advantage of a confluence of events, including legal problems facing White House aides in the controversial CIA leak case and public anger over the government response to hurricanes.
"Out of sight, out of mind, I guess is the mantra of this administration. They have so many problems of their own, consumed and distracted by other problems, that they are not focusing on the problems of the American people," said Senate (Democratic) Minority Leader Harry Reid:
At the White House, spokesman Scott McClellan rejected suggestions the investigation into the CIA leak is affecting the president's objectives. "We have got a lot of work to do, so we don't have a lot of time to sit back and think about those things. We're focusing on what the American people care most about, and that is winning the war on terrorism, succeeding in Iraq, addressing high energy prices, and helping the people of the Gulf coast recover and rebuild," he said.
President Bush rejects suggestions that he should change his economic policies in order to pay the costs of recovery from hurricanes. "Some have said that the unprecedented destruction caused by the recent hurricanes means that we got to put our plans to cut the deficit on hold. I disagree. We don't have to do that," he said. We can help the people of the Gulf coast region recover and rebuild and we can be good stewards of the taxpayer's dollars at the same time."
To underscore points about budget cuts, Democrats brought a group of African-American hurricane victims from New Orleans to the Capitol. Among them was Michelle Baker, a former custodian in New Orleans schools, who is now unemployed: "I can't believe that some people in Washington think that after a category five hurricane, the solution is to unleash a category five assault on working people," she said.
One response came from Texas Republican Congressman Jeb Hensarling, who asserted Democrats offer only the prospect of more spending and tax increases. "Compassion for the poor is not measured by the number of government checks you print, it's measured by the number of jobs you create," he said.
Amid continuing frustration over high energy prices, President Bush also repeated his call for the United States to become less dependent on imported oil.
Republican lawmakers said legislation they pushed through Congress will help encourage alternative energy development, and conservation, while expanding oil and gas exploration.
House Speaker Dennis Hastert took the unusual step of putting some public pressure on the oil industry: "Let me assure you that the House Republicans are determined to continue the fight to reduce the dependence on foreign oil. Now, the oil companies need to do their part," he said.
House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi repeated charges that Republicans favor big oil companies. "We have a budget that is a reflection of distorted values. We just passed a second energy bill which gives bonanzas to their petroleum industry friends, at a time when the American people are paying the price at the [gasoline] pump," she said.
Spending cuts approved by numerous Republican-led congressional committees will be debated in full by both chambers. Differences will have to be worked out between the House and Senate.
Compromise is certain to be difficult, given sensitivities over reductions in social programs, and other issues such as the question of opening wilderness areas of Alaska to oil drilling.
But Republican leaders have the support of President Bush, who said in his economic speech he also supports further across-the-board cuts to government programs.