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Bush to seek cutback in gas consumption

AP File PhotoVice President Dick Cheney, left, and House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Ill.., right, applaud during President Bush's State of the Union address on Capitol Hill last year.
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WASHINGTON – In his first State of the Union address to a Democratic-controlled Congress, President Bush will urge that gasoline consumption be slashed by 20 percent, the White House said, and press lawmakers not to resist his Iraq war buildup.

In Tuesday night’s address before a joint session of Congress, Bush was not expected to rehash the speech he gave less than two weeks ago laying out his revamped war plan. Instead, he was expected to argue anew that success in Iraq is indispensable in efforts to make Americans safer in the era of terrorism.

The president was not going to ignore the range of Iraq resolutions now pending on Capitol Hill that express everything from doubt to outright opposition. Without direct reference to the resolutions, Bush planned to make it clear how he would like to see lawmakers vote on his plan.

“He’s going to ask this Congress to give it a chance to work and to support our troops,” said White House counselor Dan Bartlett.

Democrats scheduled freshman Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va. a Vietnam War veteran who opposed Bush’s invasion of Iraq, to deliver their televised response. “They don’t have a plan. What they have put on the table is more a tactical adjustment,” he said in a preview.

Bush will say that the goal of slashing gasoline consumption by 20 percent by 2017 can be achieved primarily through a sharp escalation in the amount of ethanol and other alternative fuels the federal government mandates must be produced. The rest of the reduction is to come from raising fuel economy standards for passenger cars, said Joel Kaplan, White House deputy chief of staff.

Also in the energy arena, the president is asking Congress to double the current capacity of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. A protection against emergency oil market disruptions, the reserve can now hold about 727 million barrels, and Congress has authorized it to go to 1 billion. Bush wants the capacity increased further, to 1.5 billion barrels, and filled by 2027.

The president was going before lawmakers with an abbreviated topic list, hoping to regain footing at a time when his job approval rating is in the 30s and 2008 presidential contenders and Capitol Hill’s new Democratic leaders present fierce competition for attention. He is dangling new and recycled ideas primarily on energy, education, immigration and health care.

“They’re difficult issues,” Bartlett said. “They’re ones that have been attempted to be solved in the past and have come up short. We go into this process with no illusions.”

Bush’s overall agenda was twofold: to present himself as wanting to work across party lines on practical solutions and to pressure Democratic leaders to go along or offer alternatives.

The White House promised the president would be bold. But spiraling war expenses and huge federal deficits preclude anything too costly.

He was to announce plans for a “state of the economy” speech next week from a location outside Washington, an address intended to further explain his pledges to achieve a budget surplus within five years, reduce the congressional practice of “earmarking” pet projects and confront financial challenges facing Social Security and Medicare.

But the cold reception that Bush’s ideas on health care received on Capitol Hill in the days ahead of the speech offered a striking reminder of the difficulty he faces in the new political climate.

Bush is proposing to change how the tax code treats health insurance, an attempt to introduce increased market forces to the health care industry and make coverage more affordable for the uninsured. Aides estimated the plan would represent a tax increase for only about 20 percent of employer-covered workers.

But Rep. Pete Stark, D-Calif., chairman of a key health subcommittee in the House, said he would not even consider holding hearings on a proposal he dismissed as a dead-on-arrival attempt to discourage employers from offering health insurance.

The pushback to the troop increase in Iraq, from congressional Republicans as well as Democrats, also grew even on the eve of the president’s speech.

Three GOP senators and one moderate Democrat unveiled nonbinding legislation on Monday expressing disagreement with Bush’s plan and urging him to consider “all options and alternatives.”

In the House, members of the GOP leadership drafted a series of what they called “strategic benchmarks” and said the White House should submit monthly reports to Congress measuring the Iraqi government’s progress in meeting them.

Meanwhile, majority Democrats intend to hold votes within days in the House and Senate on tougher bills declaring that the troop increase is “not in the national interest.”

In other areas the president is expected to address:

– Health care. Bush will propose a tax deduction of $7,500 for individuals and $15,000 for families regardless of whether they buy their own health insurance or receive medical coverage at work, while also subjecting employer-sponsored health care benefits to taxation.

– Education. Bush will push for Congress to renew his education accountability law, No Child Left Behind, and make changes that would let children in struggling public schools move to private schools.

– Energy. The president is proposing to set the amount of ethanol and other alternative fuels that must be blended into the fuel supply at 35 billion gallons by 2017, a drastic increase from 7.5 billion gallons in 2012.

Another Bush energy proposal is something he has unsuccessfully asked Congress for in the past ” the ability to rewrite mileage rules for new car fleets. The White House calls it a safe way to improve car mileage, but some critics suggest that it could instead spur automakers to produce more gas guzzlers.

The Transportation Department already has revamped its the rules for pickups, sport utility vehicles and minivans, setting a sliding mileage scale that is based on a vehicle’s size. Bush wants the same ability to reform mileage rules for passenger cars, which today must meet a fleet average of 27.5 miles per gallon, a standard unchanged in two decades. He would include a system of trading or “banking” credits to meet new standards, Kaplan said.

“My strong impression is not only can we meet his targets but in fact his targets are modest,” Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., said of Bush’s environmental goals. “We can do much better.”


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