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On Message: With Few Exceptions, Members Offer Party-Line Reactions to Bush Speech

President Bush, who continued to push his case for war with Iraq and additional tax cuts when he addressed Congress and the nation Tuesday night, wasn’t the only one sending a message. Members of both parties used the Capitol media crush following Bush’s State of the Union address to hone their talking points for the coming months.

Republicans lauded the president’s speech and his delivery. Democrats, meanwhile, continued an ongoing theme by pounding Bush on the economy — although many begrudgingly conceded that his segment on Iraq was at least a step in the right direction.

House Government Reform Chairman Tom Davis (Va.), a former chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, predicted that the speech would give the president a measurable boost in popularity.

“I think you’ll see some movement in the polls,” Davis said.

A prominent moderate, the Virginian specifically praised some of Bush’s more centrist proposals, particularly his calls for increased funding for combating AIDS in Africa and promoting research for more energy-efficient cars.

Also on the domestic front, Rep. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) , who has strong ties to the White House, said Bush made a “very effective and compelling case for tax relief to get the economy going again.”

Noting the number of serious topics discussed, Portman was struck by the overall tone of the speech and described it as “the most solemn State of the Union I can remember.”

At the same time Democrats charged that the hour-long speech lacked substance on domestic policy.

Senate Minority Leader Thomas Daschle (D-S.D.) accused the president of getting “further and further out of touch with the American people.”

“The president’s words sounded good,” Daschle said. “They also sounded familiar. He’s been saying a lot of the same things for two years now, but the rhetoric hasn’t matched the reality of his policies.”

Echoing Daschle’s language, House Democratic Caucus Chairman Bob Menendez (N.J.) described the speech as “great rhetoric, terrible policies.”

“I leave the chamber tonight with greater concern than when I entered,” Menendez said.

Freshman Rep. Artur Davis (D-Ala.) said the president failed to discuss many of the issues — including rural poverty and unemployment — important to constituents in his district, one of the poorest in the nation.

Only two Democrats — Sens. Max Baucus (Mont.), ranking member on the Finance Committee, and Zell Miller (Ga.) — stood to applaud Bush’s assertion that the “fairest way to make sure Americans have the money is not to tax it away in the first place.”

The conservative Miller was a primary sponsor of Bush’s $1.35 trillion tax-cut package in 2001. After the speech, he indicated he liked what he had heard.

“I’m going to support each and every tax cut that comes before the Senate,” Miller said. “Like my grandchildren, I love them all.”

Miller also sent out a warning that unless one of his colleagues offers legislation to curtail spending, he would take that task upon himself.

“However, I do wish that spending cuts came along with the tax cuts,” Miller said. “And if none are there, I will offer some myself.”

Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), citing his and the president’s past experiences as governors who were required to balance their budgets, said Bush has laid out too expensive of a domestic agenda with tax cuts and spending increases that will only balloon the budget deficit.

“It bothers this old governor,” said Carper, a new member of Daschle’s expanded leadership team, pointing to himself. “But it obviously doesn’t bother that old governor.”

Meanwhile, many Democrats, like Davis, conceded that Bush had made a “more persuasive case” for military action against Iraq. Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle said they were happy to see Bush lay out in more detail the case for war against Iraq and are looking forward to Secretary of State Colin Powell’s appearance at the United Nations next week.

“The international front was clearly strong,” said freshman Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.).

Senate Minority Whip Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said Bush was “quite weak” on the economy but at the same time looked very presidential.

“I thought he had a lot of conviction in dealing with the war,” Reid said.

Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.), one of four announced presidential contenders in the Congressional audience Tuesday, appreciated Bush’s detailed recitation of U.N. and U.S. intelligence sources’ data on unaccounted-for Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.

“He did a better job [of making the case] than I’ve heard made before,” he said.

Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), leader of the House Progressive Caucus and one of the most vocal Congressional opponents of taking military action against Iraq, was one of the few Democrats unmoved by the president’s speech.

“It seems to me that if we want peace in this world then we have to watch our rhetoric,” Kucinich said. “We have to watch the implications of our statements. And I don’t think this speech tonight, the White House staff that put this together, did the president a service.”

More than anything, some Republicans said they continue to appreciate Bush’s style as a speaker, which was regularly criticized during his presidential campaign. They say that, while he may not come across as an intellectual, he speaks in an easy-to-understand cadence that takes the remarkably complex issues of the day and boils them into a comprehendible package for the American voters.

“Very straight-forward, very sincere,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who originally supported Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in the 2000 primaries but who relied on Bush as a campaign tool in 2002.

“It’s one committed sentence followed by another committed sentence,” Graham said. “It’s not over anybody’s head.”

Budget Battle Looms

Congress now awaits delivery of Bush’s budget, which will put a price tag on all of his spending priorities for the next fiscal year. Over the next two months, the House and Senate Budget committees will try to hammer out their own plan with the House likely to adopt or largely replicate the president’s request. A much tougher fight is expected to take place in the Senate, where Democrats have more negotiating power than their House colleagues.

Last year, Congress failed to pass a budget, which in turn delayed passage of 11 of the 13 appropriations bills. The Senate finally passed the outstanding bills last week in a giant omnibus appropriations measure. Senate and House negotiators are heading to conference, where they will hammer out the final details of the fiscal 2003 spending package.

“We will do our part on the House side, and the first thing we have to do is get a budget and then stay within that budget,” Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) said after the speech. “We talked to the Senate folks [Tuesday] and that is what their intent is.”

Prime Positioning

Members gathered inside the chamber early to jockey for prime aisle seats and other strategic positions.

Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.), who is mulling a Senate bid next year, had staked out his aisle seat by 5 p.m. Rep. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), who has declared he is running for the Senate in 2004, greeted Republican Senators as they were being seated.

During the speech, Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.) sat beside his father, Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), while Labor Secretary Elaine Chao was seated directly in front of her husband, Senate Majority Whip Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). California Democratic Reps. Linda and Loretta Sanchez, who form the first Congressional sister act, sat apart from each other.

Rep. Dennis Moore (D-Kan.) was the first Member to bolt for the door during the speech. He exited the chamber at 9:41 p.m., as Members stood and applauded loudly after Bush declared “free people will set the course of history.”

Mark Preston, Paul Kane and Ben Pershing contributed to this report.

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