Bush pushes Congress to move on farm bill, economic measures

WASHINGTON — President Bush on Tuesday accused the Democratic-led Congress of blocking his proposals to deal with rising gas prices and dragging its feet on measures to address the sagging economy. He said he was “open to any ideas,” including a proposal backed by presidential contenders John McCain and Hillary Clinton to suspend gas and diesel taxes this summer

But Bush quickly said that he favors longer-term fixes, such as encouraging new oil production in the United States and building new refineries at home. He renewed his call for opening areas of Alaska wilderness to oil exploration and production.

“If there was a magic wand to wave, I’d be waving it, of course,” he told reporters at a Rose Garden news conference called on short notice. “But there is no magic wand to wave right now. It took us a while to get to this fix.”

The president’s hour-long question-and-answer session under sunny skies came on the eve of a government report on the state of the economy in the first three months of the year.

“It’s a tough time for our economy,” Bush said.

Many business analysts believe the economy already has slipped into recession, but the president — as in the past — declined to use that term.

“You know, the words on how to define the economy don’t reflect the anxiety the American people feel,” the president said. “You know, the average person doesn’t really care what we call it.”

Asked if he thought the statistics due out Wednesday on the nation’s gross domestic product for January through March would show the country was indeed in a recession, Bush said: “I think they’ll show we’re in a very slow economy.”

Two straight quarterly contractions in the GDP — which measures business growth — is the common definition of a recession. But the official determination — made by the National Bureau of Economic Research — takes longer and is based on a more complicated formula.

Just 27 percent of the people questioned about Bush’s handling of the economy said they approved, in an Associated Press-Ipsos poll this month. It was his worst showing ever in the survey and was down 4 percentage points since March. In a separate AP-Yahoo News poll this month, people named the economy as the nation’s top problem, with gas prices are second and the Iraq war far behind.

Bush spoke shortly after a report that said consumer confidence fell further in April amid heightened concerns about soaring inflation and the weakening job market. The Consumer Confidence Index now stands at 62.3 in April, down from the revised 65.9 in March, said the Conference Board, a private research group.

Bush was asked about a proposal to suspend fuel taxes for the summer travel season, first made by Republican McCain and later endorsed by Democrat Clinton but not by her rival, Barack Obama. The tax is 18.4 cents per gallon of gasoline and 24.4 cents on diesel fuel. The average price of a gallon of gas has reached $3.60 nationwide.

“I’m open to any ideas and we’ll analyze anything that comes up,” he said. But Bush also said he didn’t want to inject himself into the ongoing presidential race and favored longer term alternatives.

Bush renewed his objection to calls that the government discontinue keeping up the nation’s Strategic Petroleum Reserve supply while oil prices are so high. “If I thought it would affect the price of oil significantly, I would seriously consider it,” he said of an idea embraced by many Democrats and some Republicans.

Bush also said that it was important to keep filling the reserve, in underground salt domes in Texas and Louisiana, in case there is a terror attack on the nation’s oil supplies. He also once again called for Congress to permit drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a proposal he has made repeatedly since he first took office in 2001, and to pave the way for the building of new refineries.

The president revived an earlier proposal that shuttered military bases be used as sites for new refineries. In the past, oil and energy experts have expressed little interest in that, saying military bases often aren’t situated where the oil pipelines are anyhow.

He sidestepped a question on whether there should be a second stimulus package. Rebates started to go out this week as part of a $168 billion stimulus package enacted in February. The checks will range to up $600 for an individual, $1,200 for a couple and an additional $300 for each eligible dependent child.

Bush also called on Congress to act more quickly on legislation he supports to address the housing and credit crunch by making student loans more available and to help homeowners facing foreclosure.

The president’s biggest target was Congress.

“These are difficult times. And the American people know it and they want to know whether or not Congress knows it,” Bush said.

Bush raised the anti-Congress theme repeatedly. “I believe that they’re letting the American people down, is what I believe,” he said. “It’s either a lack of leadership or a lack of understanding of the issue. And either way, it’s not good for the country.”

On other subjects, Bush said:

— He believes the NATO-led mission in Afghanistan is making strides in tamping down “a very resilient enemy.” Bush is scheduled to meet later with the special representative of the U.N. Secretary-General for Afghanistan, said that he believes the NATO-led mission in the country is succeeding. “We’re making progress, but it’s also a tough battle,” Bush said. “We’re facing people who are willing to strap bombs on themselves and walk into places where the innocent dwell.”

— He was declining to openly criticize former President Carter for his meetings last week with representatives of Hamas, the Palestinian group the State Department considers a terrorist organization. “Anybody can talk to whomever they want, but I want people to understand the problem is Hamas,” said Bush. “Foreign policy and peace is undermined by Hamas. … That’s the reason I’m not talking with them,” he said.

— Spoke about intelligence that was released alleging that Syria and North Korea were cooperating on a clandestine nuclear reactor. He said the intelligence was made public to step up pressure on North Korea to end its own nuclear program and to pressure Syria to stop destabilizing the Middle East by aiding insurgents in Iraq and Hamas in Lebanon. He said it was also meant to send a message to Iran.

— Despite lack of much visible progress toward an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, “I’m still hopeful we’ll get an agreement by the end of my presidency.” Bush visits the Middle East next month.

— The government in Zimbabwe of President Robert Mugabe is waging a campaign of violence and intimidation following March 29 elections that is “simply unacceptable.” Bush gently criticized neighboring African countries, such as South Africa, for not acting enough to resolve the crisis, urging them to “step up and lead.”

— He would not accept a bill to pay for the Iraq war more expensive than his $108 billion request. Democrats may try to add extended unemployment benefits and new education funding for veterans, a move that would expand the measure by nearly $13 billion. “$108 billion is $108 billion,” the president said.

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