By Joe Eaton and Danny Jacobs
WASHINGTON – Maryland reaction to President Bush’s state of the union address split along party lines Tuesday night, with Republicans praising his goals and Democrats complaining about the missing details.
The hour-long speech was almost evenly divided between foreign affairs, in which the president hailed the president touted military successes in Iraq and Afghanistan, and calls for new a continuation and expansion of his administration’s economic policies.
“The state of the union is confident and strong,” said Bush, who was interrupted about 40 times by standing ovations — half of which appeared to split Congress along party lines.
“It was the same old, same old. The president talked about how the tax cuts helped, but failed to explain the 9 million unemployed and counting,” said Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Baltimore, and chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus.
But Rep. Wayne Gilchrest, R-Kennedyville, said the president “challenged Congress with a vision for the future,” and that now it is up to Congress to produce results.
While he noted that there had been no terrorist attacks on U.S. soil in the more than two years since Sept. 11, 2001, Bush said the threat of domestic terrorism is not over. He Congress to renew the Patriot Act, which is set to expire next year.
The presidents also asked Congress to make his tax cuts permanent. “The economy is strong and growing stronger because of the tax cuts,” he said.
In addition to tax cuts, the president said he would attempt to continue the economic recovery by increasing funding for job training programs at community colleges and boosting spending on college grants.
He also said he would ask for $23 million to support for drug testing in schools, a $300 million four-year program to help released prisoners, and a doubling of funding for abstinence programs.
Despite the increased spending, Bush said he would reduce the budget deficit by limiting discretionary spending, and he urged Congress to “focus on priorities, cut wasteful spending and be wise with the people’s money.”
He called on Congress to partially privatize Social Security and enact energy conservation that would reduce reliance on foreign sources.
Democrats said the speech was short on substance and short on the domestic details they had hoped to hear.
“I was looking for more substance about how we’re going to do things,” said Rep. C.A. “Dutch” Ruppersberger, D-Timonium. “Like No Child Left Behind; how are we going to pay for that? He mentioned jobs increasing. Well, I don’t see it. We’re 2 million jobs down.”
Ruppersberger added that he wanted for more specifics about training first responders in Maryland in the event of another terrorist attack.
Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., also criticized the president’s domestic plans, saying: “He talked to Wall Street. I’m worried about Main Street.”
Bush praised the Medicare and prescription reform efforts of the last session of Congress and threatened to veto any attempt to change those measures. But Mikulski said the president’s health care proposal does not go far enough to help Americans get coverage.
“I think we could do better,” Mikulski said. “If he put forth a proposal and a budget . . . we could close the gap.”
Rep. Benjamin Cardin, D-Baltimore, said he was “disappointed in that the president did not spend more time dealing with domestic issues.
“It seemed like a campaign speech more than a state of the union address,” Cardin said. “He offered very little leadership in trying to deal with the budget deficit.”
But Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, R-Frederick, said before the speech that the administration has already gone a long way to addressing the issues raised by Democrats.
“The president and the Republican Congress delivered on a promise of passing legislation to update Medicare and provide prescription drug coverage for seniors,” Bartlett said.
He said that tax cuts have given the economy a boost, as shown by strong economic growth in the third quarter of 2003 and a surge in the stock market last year.
Gilchrest applauded the proposed associated health plans for small businesses, which he said could cut the current “crushing” health care costs in half. And as a former teacher in Kent County, Gilchrest was impressed with the president’s plan to fight drug use among children and the prison rehabilitation plan, saying that the personal contact involved with both programs does work.
Despite the partisanship in Congress, Gilchrest believes the speech must be looked at as the president’s vision for the future, and that both Republicans and Democrats must do what they can to fulfill it.
“As much as we agree on, we must try to work hard” for Bush, he said.
— Capital News Service reporters Elysa Batista, Hazel Feigenblatt, Melissa McGrath and Alex Quinones contributed to this report.
-30- CNS 01-20-04