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Bush stands by troop surge, unveils energy efficiency plan

WASHINGTON--President Bush implored lawmakers and the nation Tuesday night to give him one more chance to win the war in Iraq and avoid the ``nightmare scenario'' of defeat while presenting a domestic agenda intended to find common cause with the new Democratic Congress on issues such as energy and immigration.

Politically wounded but rhetorically unbowed, Bush gave no ground on his decision to dispatch 21,500 more troops to Iraq despite a bipartisan cascade of criticism. Addressing for the first time a Congress controlled by the other party, Bush challenged Democrats ``to show our enemies abroad that we are united in the goal of victory'' and warned that the consequences of failure in Iraq ``would be grievous and far-reaching.''

``I respect you and the arguments you have made,'' Bush told skeptical lawmakers from both parties in his sixth State of the Union address and the fourth since the invasion of Iraq in March 2003. ``We went into this largely united--in our assumptions and in our convictions. And whatever you voted for, you did not vote for failure. Our country is pursuing a new strategy in Iraq and I ask you to give it a chance to work.''

Yet his approach contrasted with the last two presidents to address an opposition Congress after their parties lost midterm elections. Ronald Reagan conceded mistakes in 1987, as did Bill Clinton in 1995. Clinton moved to the middle so conspicuously that the opposition leader who gave the official response noted that he ``sounded pretty Republican.'' Although Bush acknowledged two weeks ago that ``mistakes have been made'' in Iraq, he appeared unchastened Tuesday night and took no responsibility for his party's defeat or errors in office.

The speech came at the nadir of the Bush presidency to date, with the war grinding on, ever-widening bloodshed and no end in sight, two-thirds of the public turned against him in opinion polls and Democrats controlling both houses of Congress.

He did not directly debate Democrats' proposals to cut off funding for more troops in Iraq but asked them to let him try his new plan. ``In the end, I chose this course of action because it provides the best chance of success,'' he said. ``Many in this chamber understand that America must not fail in Iraq because you understand that the consequences of failure would be grievous and far-reaching.''

The immediate consequence he envisioned was an Iraqi capital plunged into anarchy. ``If American forces step back before Baghdad is secure, the Iraqi government would be overrun by extremists on all sides,'' Bush said. ``We could expect an epic battle between Shia extremists backed by Iran and Sunni extremists aided by al-Qaida and supporters of the old regime. A contagion of violence could spill out across the country--and in time the entire region could be drawn into the conflict.''

The biggest previously undisclosed initiative announced Tuesday night was Bush's proposal to reduce U.S. gasoline consumption by 20 percent by 2017, largely by stimulating the growth of ethanol and other alternative fuels but also by increasing fuel efficiency of automobiles. Bush has spoken in past State of the Union addresses about his desire to break U.S. dependency on foreign oil and last year declared that ``America is addicted to oil,'' but his speech Tuesday night represented his most aggressive effort to curtail the habit.

The president proposed an ambitious campaign to expand the use of ethanol, methanol, hydrogen and other alternative fuels by requiring oil refineries to use 35 billion gallons of renewable and alternative fuels by 2017, a fivefold increase in the current standard. Aides calculated that doing so would displace about 15 percent of projected gasoline use.

Bush also asked Congress to overhaul the mileage standards for automobiles. Rather than forcing automakers to raise fuel-efficiency standards for new cars across the board, Bush is pushing for flexibility to set different standards for different sizes and makes so manufacturers do not make smaller cars that are less safe. Officials forecast raising fuel standards by 4 percent a year, which would reduce overall gasoline use by 5 percent by 2017.

As aides disclosed in recent days, Bush also called for a major change in the tax code in an effort to make health insurance more affordable. Under his plan, health insurance coverage would be taxable income but families would receive a $15,000 deduction. The plan would make it easier for those who buy health insurance out of pocket while increasing taxes on those who receive employer-funded health care worth more than $15,000 to eventually offset the cost to the Treasury.

Administration officials said the idea is to make basic health insurance affordable for more Americans. The president said he would also direct more federal money to states to cover low-income residents, although aides did not specify how much money would be provided.

Bush used the speech to press Congress to approve his long-standing immigration bill, which couples increased funding for border security with a plan for a temporary-worker program. The plan was blocked by the Republican-led Congress last year, but administration officials hope it may be more appealing to Democrats.

The president repeated his call for a balanced budget in five years while demanding reductions in special-interest projects approved by Congress. He called for reforming Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, but it merited only a brief mention, highlighting the difficult path ahead for an idea that dominated the first year of his second term.

Bush also urged Congress to reauthorize--and not weaken--his signature No Child Left Behind law, which is aimed at holding schools accountable through greater testing to make sure students meet minimum standards of achievement.