By Patrice Dickens and Catherine Dolinski
WASHINGTON – Maryland lawmakers who had hoped for President Bush to address both the nation’s domestic and foreign challenges in his State of the Union speech Tuesday said they got most of what they wanted.
But while the state’s congressional delegation fell squarely behind the president in his call for a renewed war on terrorism and terrorist sponsor states, some lawmakers worried that the president would not be able to deliver on his domestic promises.
Sen. Paul Sarbanes, D-Md., said the president “sent out a very sobering statement about the terrorist threat,” but added that he saw problems in his national spending proposals.
“We absolutely have to move against terrorism, but if he pushes defense and homeland security, and also tries to do a giant tax cut, the deficit will be large and long-term,” Sarbanes said. “There was a basic contradiction in the goals he laid out.”
But Republican lawmakers defended the president’s call for a tax cut, saying Democrats just don’t understand the effect it will have on the economy.
“They (Democrats) think they will be better at spending your money. They don’t believe you’re smart enough to spend it well,” said Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, R-Frederick.
Other members of the state’s congressional delegation praised the domestic and foreign sweep of the president’s statements, without questioning the details.
“I think he learned well from his dad’s administration,” said Rep. Robert Ehrlich, R-Timonium. “You need to articulate a people’s agenda — a domestic agenda — as well as a national agenda, and that’s exactly what he did tonight.”
The 45-minute speech, Bush’s first official State of the Union address, was interrupted 67 times by applause. Sounding alternate notes of austerity and optimism, Bush strove to inspire hope for a nation facing myriad challenges.
“Our nation is at war, our economy is in recession — yet the state of our union has never been stronger,” he began, interrupted by thunderous applause from the floor.
Themes of terrorism, war and dominated the first half of the speech.
“My hope is that all nations will heed our call and eliminate the terrorist parasites,” he said. “But some governments will be timid in the face of terror and make no mistake, if they do not act, America will.”
Midway through his speech, Bush moved to address America’s second battlefront — the slumping national economy.
“My economic security plan can be summed up in one word: jobs,” he said, stressing that good jobs depend first on quality teachers and education.
He called for the largest increase in defense spending in two decades, saying that “whatever it costs to defend our country, we will pay.” Included in the military increase is a proposed pay raise for military personnel, which several Maryland lawmakers hailed as a potential boon to the state.
The president called on Congress to pass a Patients Bill of Rights and to alter Medicare to include prescription drug coverage for seniors.
Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., said she was intrigued that Bush urged of Congress to join him this year in enacting prescription drug coverage for seniors through Medicare, and offered her “absolute support” for his defense and homeland defense plans. Mikulski, who called the speech “excellent” overall, said she particularly liked Bush’s proposal to increase funding to help states and communities “train and equip” more police and firefighters.
He also laid out plans for an expansion of faith-based initiatives and an increase of volunteerism through the creation of the USA Freedom Corps.
“We have glimpsed what a new culture of responsibility looks like . . . my call tonight is to commit at least two years, or 4,000 hours, of service to your neighbors and your nation,” Bush said.
Rep. Connie Morella, R-Bethesda, said she liked the fact that Bush “gave praise to the nation and pleaded with them to stick together.”
“We believe in community service in Maryland. It’s required in our schools, so I like that he asked everyone to make a pledge of community service,” Morella said.
Morella said the speech did not mention a planned 16 percent increase in funding for the National Institutes of Health, which is in Montgomery County. She also noted that increased funds for the war on terrorism, and preparation for a possible war on bioterrorism, should mean more funding for the health and medical agencies headquartered in Maryland.
But many Democrats in the delegation worried about Bush’s plans for spending and his call for a tax cut.
“He wants to cut taxes from the very wealthy and I don’t know how he is going to meet his goal like Medicare and prescription drugs. How can you do all that and get a tax cut?” said Rep. Albert Wynn, D-Largo.
Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Mechanicsville, agreed. While he said the overall speech, with its emphasis on the fight against terrorism, was good, he was critical of the president’s vagueness on key issues.
Others were not as worried about the details — yet. Rep. Benjamin Cardin, D-Baltimore, said that “what was in Bush’s speech was very positive and was a good way to start,” commending Bush’s call to improve the environment and give funding to emergency workers, citing to those as potential benefits to Maryland.
And some had no criticisms at all.
“I’d give him an A-plus,” said Rep. Wayne Gilchrest, R-Kennedyville. “I’m a former schoolteacher. He did his homework.” — CNS reporters Shannon Canton, Stephen S. Chapman, Candia Dames, Michelle Krupa and Laura A. Said contributed to this report.