President Bush, successful in forcing the Democratic Congress to bend to his will, complained that lawmakers had wasted time and taxpayers’ money. His aggressive stand set a confrontational tone for Bush’s final year in the White House.
Bush used a year-end news conference Thursday to scold lawmakers for stuffing 9,800 special-interest projects into a $550 billion spending measure. He directed his budget director to explore how to erase what Bush considers wasteful spending.
What began as a troubling year for Bush, facing a new, energetic Democratic Congress, ended in triumph for the president as frustrated Democrats nursed their losses. Democrats failed in their No. 1 objective to stop the war in Iraq and bowed to Bush and his veto threats on tax policies, energy legislation, children’s health insurance and general spending.
After months of bitter fights, Bush said the year was ending on a high note. “It’s an antagonistic world from some people’s point of view,” the president said. “I try to make it less that way and to focus on high priorities.”
But that did not stop him from presenting a litany of complaints. Bush said he was disappointed Congress had lumped government spending into a single 1,400-page omnibus bill. “When Congress wastes so much time and leaves its work to the final days before Christmas, it is not a responsible way to run this government,” he said.
He also complained Congress had not renewed a government eavesdropping bill to combat terrorism and said that should be a first priority when lawmakers return in January. Another priority is to make sure Congress does not raise taxes, he said. “I understand this is a point of disagreement.”
Democrats conceded Bush’s success. “President Bush’s veto pen prevented the kind of significant change our country needs,” said Rep. Rahm Emanuel of Illinois, head of the House Democratic Caucus. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said, “Next year, I hope the president will stop trying to block progress and work with Congress to deliver for the American people.”
The news conference covered a wide range of subjects, from the CIA’s destruction of interrogation tapes of al-Qaida leaders, global warming and the Iraq war to the presidential campaign, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s efforts to hold onto power and the struggle in Afghanistan.
The president refused to say whether it was appropriate for the CIA to destroy the tapes, saying he would withhold judgment until completion of hearings and inquiries by Congress, the Justice Department and the CIA’s inspector general.
Bush said there was no ambiguity in his statement that he could not recall being told about the tapes and their destruction before being briefed on the matter by CIA Director Michael Hayden on Dec. 6.
Bush spoke cautiously about the state of democracy in Russia under Putin, who has tightened control of the courts and the media as he maneuvers to retain power as his term ends. Putin has agreed to serve as prime minister if his protege, Dmitry Medvedev, is elected as president as expected.
Putin was just named Time magazine’s “Person of the Year” for imposing stability that restored Russia as a world power.
“I presume they put him on there because he was a consequential leader,” Bush said. “And the fundamental question is, consequential to what end? What will the country look like 10 years from now? My hope, of course, is that Russia is a country that understands there needs to be checks and balances.”
Turning to Iraq, where Bush’s military buildup is generally agreed to have helped reduce violence on the ground against U.S. forces and Iraqi citizens, Bush said work remains to be done, especially in terms of political improvements in the country.
“Are we satisfied with progress in Baghdad? No, but to say nothing is happening is not the case,” Bush said. And while the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has come under considerable criticism from various quarters, “There is a functioning government.”
Bush suggested that people were feeling better about their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan, even though thousands of combat troops remain in both countries to provide security. He expressed concern that support for Afghanistan is fading among NATO allies.
“My biggest concern is that people say, ‘Well, we’re kind of tired of Afghanistan and, therefore, we think we’re going to leave,’” Bush said.
The president also:
_Said the economy is strong but left open the possibility of taking more aggressive steps to prevent a recession. In terms of further stimulation, we’ll consider all options,” he said. “So we’re watching carefully.”
_Said he will continue to oppose global-warming initiatives that would hamper U.S. economic growth. “I take the issue seriously,” Bush said about climate change. “But I want to make sure that we’re effective in what we do, and do not wreck our economy in whatever we do.”
_Predicted that the GOP would win the White House in 2008 and regain seats in the House and Senate. Bush said he wouldn’t be dragged into the presidential race when asked about the comments of fellow GOP candidate Mike Huckabee, who criticized the administration’s foreign policy as “arrogant bunker mentality.”
_Jokingly dismissed a question about former President Clinton’s suggestion that if his wife Hillary Rodham Clinton were elected, she would send him and former President George H.W. Bush on a goodwill trip around the world. “Well, 41 didn’t think it’s necessary,” Bush said, referring to his father by the number of his presidency. “Sounds like it’s going to be a one-man trip.”
Starting Friday, Bush plans to split the Christmas holidays between Camp David, the presidential retreat in Maryland’s Catoctin Mountains, and his ranch in Crawford, Texas. He is to return to the White House on Jan. 1 and take off a week later for a major trip to the Middle East.
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