In the run-up to a high-profile update on the nation's economic growth Wednesday, President Bush and Congress clashed over who is to blame for delays in responding to top concerns of American families: soaring gas and food prices, a housing crisis, and the student loan crunch.
"I've repeatedly submitted proposals to help address these problems. Yet time after time Congress chose to block them," the president said at a Rose Garden press conference on Tuesday.
The solution for high gas prices is expanding production here at home, including opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to exploration and drilling – a move that would produce about a million additional barrels of oil a day, he said. He also called for building more refinery capacity and expanding the use of nuclear power.
In response, Democrats charged that the president and a Republican majority had six years to improve the nation's economic condition, including a looming energy crisis, and fell short. "Now, with less than a year remaining in his administration, the president is demanding immediate action," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in a statement.
On Tuesday, a widely watched consumer confidence index fell to 62.3 percent this month, according to The Conference Board, the lowest it has been in five years.
The new clash with the White House comes as Democrats are scrambling to move housing legislation, a controversial farm bill, and the president's $108 billion war-funding request for this fiscal year. Last week, Senate majority leader Harry Reid called on committee chairmen to give him concrete suggestions for easing high prices at the pump this summer.
After recent successes blocking the White House on domestic-surveillance legislation and a trade deal with Colombia, House Democrats claimed that they had gained momentum in fighting for their own priorities.
After blocking a vote on a trade deal with Colombia this month, Speaker Pelosi told reporters that "the president has finally realized that the leverage has changed."
"That is the question: Who has the leverage? I think the president realizes now that we do," she said.
If so, Bush gave little indication of it in his press conference Tuesday. In response to a question, he restated opposition to any additional spending on the war-funding request. "I will not accept a supplemental over $108 billion or a supplemental that micromanages the war [and] ties the hands of our commanders," he said.
To relieve the subprime mortgage crisis, he called on Congress to pass long-delayed legislation to modernize the Federal Housing Administration and allow state housing agencies to issue tax-free bonds to refinance subprime loans. To help students seeking financing for college, he called on Congress to temporarily give the federal government greater authority to buy federal student loans. To reduce food prices, he said that Congress should reduce unnecessary subsidies for wealthy farmers.
"Americans are concerned about rising food prices. Unfortunately, Congress is considering a massive, bloated farm bill that would do little to solve the problem," he said.
While the president's approval ratings are low, the ratings for Congress are lower still. At press time, Senate Democratic leaders, who typically brief the press after caucus lunches, did not have a formal response to the president's charges.
Democrats charge that Senate Republicans have used obstructionist tactics to block legislation that would have helped relieve the energy crisis and other concerns of American voters.
"Under George Bush's tenure, median household income has declined $1,100, energy costs nearly doubled, college costs are up 60 percent. Pointing fingers doesn't solve these problems for American families or answer his own record on these issues," says House Democratic caucus chairman Rahm Emanuel.
Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D) of New Mexico, who chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, rejected claims that drilling in ANWR would be a fix for high gas prices. "It's well known on both sides that it will take eight to 10 years before any oil could be produced in ANWR," he says.
In recent weeks, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have called on the president to stop filling the US Strategic Petroleum Reserve. On Monday, 14 Republicans joined Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R) of Texas in calling for an immediate halt of deposits of domestic crude oil into the SPR.
"As we enter the busiest driving season of the year, the price of a barrel of West Texas Intermediate crude oil hovers around a record $120," said Senator Hutchison, who chairs the Republican Policy Committee, in her letter to the White House.
In his press briefing, Bush declined to move on this front.
Purchases for the SPR account for only 0.1 percent of global demand. "I don't think that's going to affect price when you affect 0.1 percent," he said. "And I do believe it is in our national interest to get the [reserve] filled, in case there is a major disruption of crude oil around the world."