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KWAME HOLMAN: In keeping with long-standing tradition…many of the dignitaries attending the State of the Union address enter and exit the House chamber through the Capitol’s grand Statuary Hall.
And shortly after ten last night…dozens of members of Congress engaged in another Statuary Hall tradition — providing instant reaction to what the president had just said.
SEN. ZELL MILLER (D-GA): I thought he nailed it…
REP. MARK FOLEY (R-FLA): He hit all the right notes…
REP. BOBBY SCOTT (D-VA): I thought it was a great speech. It was very articulate…
REP. ZACH WAMP (R-TENN): He now transcends politics…
SEN. JIM JEFFORDS (D-VT): It was a fantastic speech…well written speech…
KWAME HOLMAN: That bipartisan praise was directed especially at the first third of President Bush’s address…which was dominated by forceful words about the U.S. campaign against terrorism and the cost of keeping that effort going.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: It costs a lot to fight this war. We have spent more than a billion dollars a month — over $30 million a day — and we must be prepared for future operations.
Afghanistan proved that expensive precision weapons defeat the enemy and spare innocent lives, and we need more of them.
We need to replace aging aircraft and make our military more agile to put our troops anywhere in the world quickly and safely. Our men and women in uniform deserve the best weapons, the best equipment, the best training, and they also deserve another pay raise.
My budget includes the largest increase in defense spending in two decades, because while the price of freedom and security is high, it is never too high.
Whatever it costs to defend our country, we will pay.
KWAME HOLMAN: But for months members of Congress have watched with alarm as the terror attacks and their aftermath — coupled with recession — erased projected surpluses from the federal budget.
KWAME HOLMAN: North Carolina Democrat Mel Watt.
REP. MEL WATT (D-NC): We worked so hard over the last eight to ten years to get back into a surplus situation and now we — this president has been in office about a year — and we are back in a deficit situation with no end in sight.
KWAME HOLMAN: And many members were uneasy last night as the President went on to tick off other major spending initiatives he wants enacted…including a $38 billion homeland security offensive.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: The next priority of my budget is to do everything possible to protect our citizens and strengthen our nation against the ongoing threat of another attack. Time and distance from the events of September the 11th will not make us safer unless we act on its lessons.
America is no longer protected by vast oceans. We are protected from attack only by vigorous action abroad and increased vigilance at home.
My budget nearly doubles funding for a sustained strategy of homeland security focused on four key areas: bioterrorism, emergency response, airport and border security, and improved intelligence.
KWAME HOLMAN: The president also called for adding a prescription drug benefit for low-income senior citizens, making last spring’s income tax cuts permanent and an economic stimulus package of benefits for the unemployed and tax cuts for businesses.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Once we have funded our national security and our homeland security, the final great priority of my budget is economic security for the American people.
KWAME HOLMAN: But Mr. Bush made clear the burden of paying for the new programs — without overspending funds belonging to Social Security — rests squarely on the Congress.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: To achieve these great national objectives — to win the war, protect the homeland and revitalize our economy — our budget will run a deficit that will be small and short-term, so long as Congress restrains spending and acts in a fiscally responsible manner.
KWAME HOLMAN: Republican Zach Wamp of Tennessee.
REP. ZACH WAMP (R-TENN): His voice raised when he said that, as if to say, ‘This ball is not mine. I’m throwing it to you. And I do think these things need to be funded, but y’all have the power of the purse. Make sure you don’t spend too much money.’
And of course everybody in the Congress laughs, but that will be a struggle this year.
KWAME HOLMAN: Democratic Senator Patty Murray of Washington.
SEN. PATTY MURRAY (D-WASH): Tonight reminded me a lot of the 1980s when we were told we could have it all.
We could give everybody a tax cut, we could provide every spending that anybody wants and that you’ll never see deficits into the future and we know the reality of that.
KWAME HOLMAN: Republicans and Democrats disagreed about the outlook for the federal budget and the economy.
Larry Craig of Idaho chairs the Senate Republicans’ Policy Committee.
SEN. LARRY CRAIG (R-COLO): What I’m concerned about is getting people back to work. If we get people back to work, the surplus comes back.
If we drag ourselves on through this recession, we look at deficits. There is no question that the economic projections show that if we’re out of the recession next year, we’re back into surpluses.
Fiscal responsibility is important. The president laid that message down tonight. As a fiscal conservative, I’m going to be guarding that budget against frivolous spending.
But tax cuts and in some instances the right tax cuts increase revenue by the increase of economic activity.
REP. MEL WATT (D-NC): I haven’t seen anything that suggests that we’ll be back in a surplus situation during the next four or eight years.
The projections I’ve seen suggested it is 2008 at the very earliest, probably 2012 and the president called to make the tax cuts permanent tonight, which would mean that you would extend it even out into the far, far distant future. I just don’t see that adding up at this point.
KWAME HOLMAN: Florida Republican Mark Foley is a career-long opponent of deficit spending.
REP. MARK FOLEY (R-FLA): I’m concerned, I’ve been concerned with every president because they seem to have an endless adding machine tape that runs down the steps of the Capitol, so I want to be somewhat cognizant of the fact that we have responsibilities.
We have to protect Social Security, and we have to provide for Medicare. There’s a lot to do on the few dollars we have available and we can’t get back into deficit spending.
So we’re all going to be watching. But he did admonish Congress not to open up the till and spend it on every bit of pork we can find.
That is going to take some restraint and it’s going to take some patience. One member’s pork is another member’s privilege so we’re going to have to be real insightful as how we surgically remove some excess waste in this city.
KWAME HOLMAN: Democratic leaders in charge of the Senate this week began work on a stimulus package aimed at striking a balance between Republican calls for major business tax breaks…and Democrats’ desire for broader unemployment benefits and health insurance for low-income workers.
Last night members of both parties agreed there still is a need for such legislation.
REP. ZACH WAMP (R-TENN): We’re counting on some economic recovery. We hope to turn the corner. I think the economic stimulus package may not be as important today as it was two months ago. But I think it still is very important. And I don’t think it can hurt to go ahead and go forward with it.
The sooner we pull out of it the sooner we lead the world economically again. They’re relying on us, the entire world is. Our economy basically sets the markets around the world. So the sooner we come out the sooner that deficit disappears, too.
KWAME HOLMAN: Washington state’s Murray said the homeland defense spending the president wants also could spur the economy.
SEN. PATTY MURRAY (D-WASH): If we are rebuilding our roads and our ports and our bridges and our highways, that is not only economic security for the future, and security for the future, but it is jobs right now.
And those are the kinds of things that I think will be good for both security and the jobs and the economic deterioration that we are seeing.
KWAME HOLMAN: But after the chamber-wide good feelings of last night… members of Congress said they’re content to withhold final judgments on the president’s budget plans until he presents them in detail next week.