WASHINGTON — President Bush, seeking to regain political ground lost to the new Democratic-led Congress, called Tuesday for bipartisan action on energy and other domestic issues but forcefully defended his unpopular decision to send more U.S. troops to Iraq.
Delivering his annual State of the Union address before both houses of Congress -- with the nation's first female speaker of the House, Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), seated behind him -- Bush acknowledged that millions of voters deserted his Republican Party in November. He also asserted that as president, he could still set the nation's agenda.
"We're not the first to come here with a government divided and uncertainty in the air," he said. "Our citizens don't much care which side of the aisle we sit on, as long as we're willing to cross that aisle when there is work to be done."
But on the nation's most divisive issue, the war in Iraq, Bush stuck to his guns. "Many in this chamber understand that America must not fail in Iraq because you understand that the consequences of failure would be grievous and far-reaching," he said.
Hours before the president arrived at the Capitol, the Democrats' designated spokesman brusquely dismissed Bush's plan to add 21,500 more troops to Iraq as feckless.
"They don't have a plan," Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia told reporters. Webb, a Vietnam veteran whose upset election in November was key to giving the Democrats their Senate majority, added, "What they have put on the table is more a tactical adjustment."
As Bush gave his address, the atmosphere inside the House chamber was cordial. The president drew cheers from members of both parties when, at the start of his speech, he noted that he was the first president to begin his State of the Union address with the words "Madam Speaker."
On domestic policy, Bush presented a series of proposals that aides said were designed to appeal to Democrats as well as Republicans, with the aim of enticing at least some of the president's opponents to acknowledge that his ideas were worth considering.
He proposed cutting the nation's consumption of gasoline 20% within 10 years by requiring energy companies to use more alternative fuels such as ethanol, which can be produced from grains and grasses, and by raising fuel efficiency standards for autos.
He also expanded on a proposal he unveiled Saturday to make spending on health insurance tax-deductible up to a ceiling of $15,000 per family, a plan that would make insurance more affordable for some but more expensive for others.
Democrats largely applauded Bush's energy proposal but criticized his healthcare plan as a threat to traditional employer-provided insurance.
For Bush, the stakes went beyond those individual issues: He sought to demonstrate that in the final two years of his presidency, he can still command enough popular support to compel both Democrats and Republicans to pay him heed.
During his first six years in the White House, Bush enjoyed the support of a solid GOP majority in the House and, for most of that time, the Senate. He wielded his personal popularity and fundraising prowess to keep his party in line. But now he faces a Democratic congressional majority that wants to overturn many of his policies -- at a time when his own popularity has been damaged by the war.
Webb, in his official televised response after the speech, made only a brief nod toward the bipartisanship Bush called for.
Instead, the senator focused on two issues on which he said the parties stand "in contradiction": the state of the economy and Iraq.
"Wages and salaries for our workers are at all-time lows as a percentage of national wealth, even though the productivity of American workers is the highest in the world," he said.
On Iraq, he charged that Bush "took us into this war recklessly" despite warnings from many senior military officers.
"The majority of the nation no longer supports the way this war is being fought, nor does the majority of our military. We need a new direction," he said.
Still, Democrats did not dismiss all of Bush's policy proposals out of hand.
On energy, his call for reducing gasoline consumption by 20% in the next decade rested on two initiatives:
He proposed raising the federal government standard for motor fuel to require the nation's energy supplies to include a much higher percentage of alternative fuels such as ethanol. The White House estimated that its proposed standard would reduce the amount of gasoline used in cars by 15% over 10 years.
Second, Bush called on Congress to give the Transportation Department the authority to raise federal fuel efficiency requirements for passenger cars, which White House officials estimated would reduce gasoline consumption an additional 5% over 10 years.
It was not clear whether the fuel efficiency proposal would get much of a hearing on Capitol Hill. Even when Congress was controlled by Republicans, lawmakers and the administration were at loggerheads on the issue.