Tennesseans in Congress Differ on Bush State-of-Union Address 

Predictably, there was wide variety in reactions to President Bush's final State of the Union address from Tennesseans in Congress.

9th District congressman Steve Cohen issued a lengthy statement reviewing the terms of the bipartisan stimulus-package agreement between Bush and the Congress, but made it clear he thought the package could - and should - be improved.

"While the stimulus package provides some good news for taxpayers," Cohen said, "I believe we need a progressive plan which includes provisions to extend unemployment benefits, increase food stamps, promote summer youth jobs programs, and provide rebates for the seniors without earned income.

" I also believe there needs to be a cost-of-living adjustment for Social Security beneficiaries - something that is long overdue. Prominent economists agree that extending tax rebates to the Americans who live from check to check is the most effective means of boosting the economy during a downturn because that money is spent quickly on consumer goods. I will continue to work with other members of Congress toward these changes."

In his address, Bush specifically cautioned against the possible delaying effect of such efforts to include more benefits in the package.

Cohen also took exception to Bush's remarks concerning "earmarks," contending that Congress had enacted serious reforms after six years in which the president had done nothing" to slow their growth."

The assessment from 8th District congressman John Tanner, a Democrat, was also harsh - especially on economic points. It is clear, he said, "that the economic and fiscal policies enacted in 2001 have been disastrous for our country, resulting in an unprecedented amount of borrowing over the last 72 months and transferring a large portion of the U.S. tax revenue base from spending power to interest payments, much of which we are sending to foreign sources.."

Tanner said that "to continue that level of fiscal irresponsibility represents an economic vulnerability and a national security concern," and added, "I hope the President will truly work with Congress to address these economic concerns before he leaves office.

A far more enthusiastic review of the president's remarks and proposals came from 7th District representative Marsha Blackburn, who was the only Tennessean to second Bush's call for immediate "FISA reforms" (e.g., stricter security methods that many Democrats regard as questionable, even unconstitutional).

Blackburn also approved both Bush's estimate of the current military surge as successful and his determination to stay the course in Iraq. Like Cohen, she wanted additions to the stimulus program, but in her case that meant "tax and regulatory reform."

She also joined in Bush's call for action to make his tax cuts permanent, and, like the deputy whip which she is, called for action on "items that require Congress' immediate attention."

The state's two Republicans senators issued cautious statements, and, in the case of freshman Senator Bob Corker, criticism.

Corker commended Bush for sounding "serious" about "reining in wasteful spending and irresponsible earmarks, increasing our energy security by implementing policies that incentivize innovation and market-driven technology, and making health care more affordable and accessible for all Americans."

But he cautioned: "I do have strong reservations about the economic stimulus package. I find something inappropriate about a deficit-ridden federal government borrowing money from our grandchildren and sprinkling it across the country for a short-term fix that will do little, if anything, to jump-start our troubled economy."

Like Corker, Senator Lamar Alexander praised the president's resolves on restoring health to the economy; he also said Bush was "on the right track" to offer $300 million in scholarships to low-income families and to continue supporting Pell grants.

The former Education Secretary offered his own parallel preference for additional educational choices.

Beyond this point of concurrence, Alexander stressed his own concern for offering Americans more and better jobs and "access to qualify, affordable health insurance."

Perhaps tellingly, neither senator, both of whom have called for a shift in priorities in the Middle East, had a word to say about Bush's foreign initiatives, including the president's continued reliance on military surge efforts.

None of the Tennessee representatives or senators made mention of Bush's almost casually mentioned hopes of securing an agreement between Israelis and Palestinians to end a half century of division and conflict in the Holy Land.

  • A PLUS FOR COHEN: Some observers have been fascinated by the degree to which first-termer Cohen has eclipsed the penchant for positive publicity of his 9th District predecessor, Harold Ford Jr., who was no slouch.

    Ford had an uncanny ability to get himself seen on TV in friendly conversation with Bush in the aftermath of State-of-Union addresses. But Cohen went him one better Monday night.

    In full view of a national television audience, the Memphis congressman was seen handing the president a University of Memphis booster cap and successfully getting Bush's autograph.

    And one at least one network, the one coincidentally seen by U of M basketball coach John Calipari, Cohen and Bush were heard to be discussing the forthcoming cage contest between Memphis and Houston. (Both agreed the game would be a likely mismatch.)

    --Jackson Baker

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