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THE PRESIDENTIAL ADDRESS

Bush Urges Congress to Back Tax Cut, Help Pay Down Debt

Budget: In first speech to joint session, president calls for a 'refund' for taxpayers. He says surplus also allows for spending more on education, Social Security and Medicare.

February 28, 2001|DOYLE McMANUS and JAMES GERSTENZANG | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — President Bush asked Congress on Tuesday to pass a large tax cut and make it effective this year, saying that the federal budget surplus means the nation can cut the national debt, spend more on education, fix Social Security and Medicare and still have money left over.

In his first speech before the Senate and House of Representatives, Bush appealed to voters to support his yet-to-be-proposed budget, which he said will follow a "reasonable and . . . responsible" middle path.

"Year after year in Washington, budget debates seem to come down to an old, tired argument: on one side, those who want more government regardless of the cost; on the other, those who want less government, regardless of the need," Bush said.

"We should leave those arguments to the last century and chart a different course," he said. "Government has a role, and an important one. Yet too much government crowds out initiative and hard work, private charity and the private economy. Our new governing vision says government should be active but limited, engaged but not overbearing."

Adopting themes long sounded by the Democrats, the new Republican president said that his budget would increase spending on education, Social Security and Medicare.

Then, returning to the standard of his own party, tax cuts, he said: "The people of America have been overcharged--and on their behalf, I am here to ask for a refund."

The speech, interrupted 85 times by applause that was often, but not always, bipartisan, was largely a review of proposals from Bush's presidential campaign last year. The only new item was an announcement that the president has asked Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft to draw up "specific recommendations to end racial profiling," the practice some police departments follow of targeting minority groups.

But for members of Congress--and, perhaps, the nation as a whole--the question was not whether Bush would surprise his audience with new ideas but how persuasive he would be in promoting already-familiar proposals.

The new president, who arrived in the White House with less than 50% of the popular vote in an election settled by the U.S. Supreme Court, is receiving only moderate approval from the public--and his tax cut, the centerpiece of his budget, has failed to win majority support. A Washington Post-ABC News poll conducted last week found that 55% of the public approved of the job Bush was doing, but only 43% supported his tax cut.

Despite appeals from Bush for a new spirit of civility, most members of Congress reacted along predictably partisan lines. Republicans howled and stamped their feet at every mention of a tax cut. Most Democrats sat on their hands and dismissed Bush's program as partisan.

"Tonight, President Bush continued to set the right tone for Washington and the American people," said Rep. David Dreier (R-San Dimas). "It truly is a new era."

"The president is going to suggest that this is a blueprint for a new beginning," said Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.), last year's Democratic vice presidential nominee. "I think it's a copy of some old failed ideas that didn't work."

If the new president was nervous in his maiden appearance before Congress, he did not betray it. As applause swelled across the packed House chamber, he grinned and winked at members of Congress. And he began his speech with a well-calculated joke, saying he was grateful to have been invited to appear, knowing that it "could have been a close vote."

The evenly divided Senate, including Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), the former first lady, laughed appreciatively. So did Vice President Dick Cheney, sitting in the chair as presiding officer of the Senate, a role in which he would break any 50-50 tie.

The president, well-known for garbling words when he speaks off the cuff, delivered his speech with fluency and ease. There was only one "Bushism," when the president slipped and said that education was "not my top priority," then corrected himself. His 49-minute elapsed time was shorter than any of the budget speeches of his predecessor, Bill Clinton, who set a modern record of 89 minutes only last year.

Among his major points, Bush called for:

* A significant increase in federal spending on education--"the highest percentage increase in our budget."

He also repeated proposals to increase federal spending on reading programs by $5 billion and to make federal aid to schools depend on annual tests from grades three through eight. He signaled a willingness to compromise with Democrats on the issue of granting parents vouchers for private school tuition, saying that all he wants is "different options--a better public school, a private school, tutoring or a charter school."

* Increased spending on Medicare, including a prescription drug benefit for senior citizens.

* $5.7 billion in increased military pay, benefits, health care and housing.

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