WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Amid a war of words with Democrats over Iraq, President George W. Bush will use his State of the Union address on Tuesday to argue for staying in Iraq and try to build support for his domestic plans.
Bush goes before a joint session of the U.S. Congress, which Democrats control for the first time in his presidency, as many lawmakers are in a hostile mood over his plan to send 21,500 more U.S. troops to Iraq.
His speech comes two weeks after he delivered a major address laying out his retooled Iraq strategy, which many Americans doubt will work and which prompted Democrats and some Republicans to prepare a congressional resolution expressing their displeasure.
Some experts wonder if the president, entering the final two years of his second term, will be able to gain traction for domestic priorities with the Iraq debate raging.
“The usual weight that a State of the Union speech can sometimes have in setting an agenda is kind of diminished because people are already primed from the Iraq speech to discount what he says,” said Linda Fowler, a professor of government at Dartmouth College.
Bush is expected to defend his Iraq strategy as a vital step in the broader war on terrorism in his address that this year will focus on several big issues rather than a laundry list of ideas.
The short list includes proposals on health care, alternative fuels, immigration and education. The White House called them “common sense principles” that will give a basis for Bush’s approach to governing while Democrats control Congress.
“President Bush will outline issues where he believes we can find common ground with the new Congress,” said White House spokeswoman Dana Perino. “We can find practical ways to advance the American dream and keep our nation safe without either party compromising on its principles.”
Republicans looking ahead to the 2008 presidential and congressional elections hope Bush can put in motion some goals that meet Americans’ expectations.
“Americans want to know: Is anything going to get done in Washington over the next two years, and are you guys going to get anything done and what in the world are we doing in Iraq? And if he answers those questions, it’ll be a success,” said Republican strategist Charlie Black.
Whether bipartisanship is achievable is uncertain.
Said Republican strategist Scott Reed: “I think the real challenge is to jazz up some domestic policies and try to capture the attention of the public and the Congress. The Bush presidency is totally viewed through a lens of Iraq, and he needs to break out of that.”
House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, accused Bush of playing politics with troops’ lives, prompting the White House to brand the comment “poisonous.”
“The president cannot allow Iraq to overshadow those elements of his domestic agenda that have the greatest chance of getting through the Democratic-controlled Congress,” said Stephen Hess, a George Washington University professor.
Bush will make a new push on health care, including tax-code changes to make it easier for individuals to buy health insurance for themselves in the open market, rather than depending on employers.
Accused by Democrats of shrugging off global warming threats, Bush is also likely to call for increasing U.S. ethanol use to lower dependence on foreign sources of oil.
Bush is expected to renew his argument for creating a guest-worker program for an estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the United States, a proposal that his own Republicans rejected last year. It might stand a better chance in a Democratic Congress.
And he is expected to make a new push to extend the “No Child Left Behind” law approved in his first term. It uses testing to measure students’ progress and holds schools accountable if standards are not met.
Schools have found the requirements of the law difficult if not impossible to meet and Democrats say it is underfunded.
Meanwhile in Iraq, two bombs exploded seconds apart in a predominantly Shiite commercial area in central Baghdad on Monday, killing at least 67 people and wounding at least 142, said Deputy Health Minister Hakim al-zamili. The first blast occurred shortly after noon when a bomb left in a bag placed among the stalls of vendors selling DVDs and secondhand clothes exploded in the Bab al-Sharqi area between Tayaran and Tahrir squares. It was followed almost immediately by a parked car bomb just meters (yards) away. Police and hospital officials said at least 67 people were killed and 142 wounded.
The wounded were taken to nearby al-Kindi Hospital where emergency personnel worked feverishly over the bloodied and badly wounded survivors.
A suicide bomber killed at least 63 people in the same region last month.
The explosions came hours after gunmen killed a female teacher as she was on her way to work at a girls’ school in the mainly Sunni area of Khadra in western Baghdad, police said, adding that the teacher’s driver was wounded in the drive-by shooting.
Later, two mortar shells slammed into a primary school in Dora, the dangerous south Baghdad neighborhood, killing a woman who was waiting to take her child home. Eight students were wounded, police said.