Elections in Iraq a triumph, says Bush

Jeremiah Ford

Bush also promised to push forward for an overall Middle East peace, including an offer of $350 million in aid to the Palestinians.

Bush spent most of his speech on domestic affairs, largely on his plan to change the 70-year-old national pension system known as Social Security, a programme so popular with Americans that it traditionally has been considered sacrosanct and untouchable.

He challenged a hesitant Congress to take political risks to “strengthen and save” Social Security, saying the nation’s costliest social programme was headed for bankruptcy without changes. Bush’s plan would reduce guaranteed retirement benefits for younger Americans but would not affect cheques for people now 55 or older.

Bush, in his State of the Union address, pledged to work with Congress “to find the most effective combination of reforms”, although he has ruled out some remedies such as raising Social Security taxes.

Democrats said Bush’s proposal to divert Social Security revenues into private investment accounts was dangerous and that there were better ways to fix the programme, the 70-year-old centrepiece of President Franklin D Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 1930s.

Republicans stood and cheered when Bush urged approval of “voluntary personal retirement accounts.” Democrats sat in stony

silence, underscoring the partisan divide on an issue likely to dominate the year in Congress. Democrats also groaned and grumbled when Bush said Social Security would require drastically higher taxes, massive new borrowing or severe benefit cuts unless the system was changed.

Bush’s 53-minute speech dealt with problems at home and abroad, but it was the first of his annual State of the Union addresses to focus most heavily on domestic issues since the 9/11 attacks. Despite Democrats’ criticism, Bush offered no hint of a timetable for a troop withdrawal from Iraq.

The longest applause was when Bush recognised Janet and Bill Norwood, the parents of Marine Sgt Byron Norwood of Pflugerville, Texas, who was killed in the assault on the Iraqi insurgent stronghold of Fallujah. In an emotional gesture, Ms Norwood hugged Safia Taleb al-Suhail, leader of the Iraqi Women’s Political Council.

Syria and Iran were singled out as nations that still exported terror.

Returning to his inaugural address’ theme of spreading democracy, Bush hailed the success of Sunday’s elections in Iraq.

“The victory of freedom in Iraq will strengthen a new ally in the war on terror, inspire democracy reformers from Damascus to Tehran, bring more hope and progress to a troubled region.” In a challenge to Iran’s government, he told the its citizens: “As you stand for your own liberty, America stands with you.”

Bush also proposed $350m in aid to the Palestinians to help promote a Middle East peace agreement.

With more than 1,400 Americans killed in Iraq and the United States spending more than $1 billion a week on the war, Bush urged Congress to support his request for an additional $80bn.

“During this time of war, we must continue to support our military and give them the tools for victory,” he said.

While key allies like Germany and France are opposed to the war, Bush said his administration “will continue to build the coalitions that will defeat the dangers of our time”.

Emboldened by his re-election, Bush demanded that lawmakers move on several controversial fronts, including liberalising the nation’s immigration laws, imposing limits on medical malpractice lawsuits and simplifying taxes.

He also urged passage of long-stalled energy legislation and promised to send Congress a budget next week that holds discretionary spending below inflation.

In a nod to conservatives, he renewed support for a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage.

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