By Jonathan Sheir and Kate Alexander
WASHINGTON – Maryland lawmakers split along largely partisan lines on President Bush’s first address to Congress Tuesday night, with Republicans hailing it as “very good” and Democrats calling it “too good to be true.”
Addressing a joint session of Congress Tuesday night, Bush gave broad outlines of his plan to expand education funding, increase military spending and shore up Medicare and Social Security, while also promoting his $1.6 trillion tax cut proposal.
All that could be accomplished, he said, while paying down $2 trillion on the national debt over the next decade.
The items in the president’s budget plan were met with various levels of enthusiasm, with well over 75 interruptions for applause from the audience, which included both chambers of Congress, the Supreme Court, the diplomatic corps and the Cabinet.
Bush received bipartisan standing ovations for a laundry list of initiatives for education, health care and racial justice.
But only the Republican side of the chamber stood when he called for his tax cut.
While Democrats in the Maryland delegation complimented the president on his speech and his desire to work in a bipartisan way on issues, they were skeptical of the unspoken details of his budget.
“I thought the president made some good points,” said Rep. Albert Wynn, D- Largo. “The problem is how is he going to pay for it?”
Wynn said Bush was promising too much.
“The numbers just don’t add up,” he said. “It was a good speech but what will happen when we move to implement it? The proof will be in the pudding.”
Rep. Benjamin Cardin, D-Baltimore, agreed that the budget was unrealistic.
“When you hear things that are too good to be true, they usually are,” Cardin said. “This is too good to be true.”
Cardin said that some things in the speech, including the patient’s bill of rights and racial profiling, could lead to “strong bipartisan results,” but he was pessimistic about the chances of bipartisan work on the budget.
“The speech gave me little hope,” he said. “There was no inclination at all that he’s moving in a bipartisan direction.”
But Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, R-Frederick , noted that the president is staying true to the promises he made on the campaign trail. He said the issues outlined Tuesday were “what he campaigned on. He hasn’t deviated one iota.”
Rep. Wayne Gilchrest, R-Kennedyville, also complimented Bush for taking a tone that has moved “the office of the presidency from an icon to a person with humility, commitment and intelligence.” He lauded the president’s call for a national energy policy that will include environmentally sound alternative energy sources as well as oil and gas exploration to enable the country to become “energy independent.”
Rep. Robert Ehrlich, R-Timonium, said that Bush’s emphasis on education and his proposals to double the funding for the National Institutes of Health and increase military spending made it a “very pro-Maryland speech.”
Rep. Connie Morella, R-Bethesda, called it a very good speech, and said the president’s emphasis on education and increased funding for NIH was particularly important to her constituents.
“I thought it was a very good speech. I think it was well constructed. I think it hit on some very persuasive and emotional points,” Morella said. “I think he delivered it well. I think he has the personal touch.”
But even Morella said she wanted to see details on the budget before committing completely to Bush’s plan.
“I think he softened people,” said Morella, noting that Democrats seemed generally accepting of the tone of the speech. “Now they’re going to scrutinize the budget just as I am. . . .we’ll be looking for the details.”
Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Mechanicsville , was not one of those who was “softened” by the speech. He said Bush’s proposal was reminiscent of President Reagan’s sweeping 1981 tax cut, which led to a deepening of the deficit.
“We want a tax cut for average working Americans,” Hoyer said. “We don’t want to squander the surplus.”
Few Marylanders agree with Bush that sweeping tax cuts are a top priority, according to a new poll. The poll by Gonzales/Arscott Research & Communications showed Democrats in Maryland are strongly opposed Bush’s tax plan and Republicans overwhelmingly in favor of it.
The poll found that 49 percent of Marylanders supported the president’s proposed tax cut, with only 36 percent opposed. Blacks opposed the cut by a two- to-one margin, and only 32 percent of Democrats supported it. Republicans, however, supported it 84 percent to 7 percent.
Despite the cut’s relative popularity, it is not a high priority for Marylanders. Only 10 percent said it was the most important issue in Washington, according to the Gonzales/Arscott poll. The poll was taken from Feb. 20 to 23 and had a margin of error of 4.5 percent.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Baltimore, was cautious in allowing himself to praise Bush’s plan. He said he was pleased with the president’s strong commitment to education and noted that he led the applause when Bush condemned racial profiling.
Bush’s plan is “pregnant with possibilities. The question will be in the delivery,” Cummings said. — CNS reporters Elizabeth Cogan, Arheun Kim, Greg Lamm, Robert Patrick and Richard M. Todaro contributed to this report.