State of the Union Preview: Cut Gas Use, Increase Oil Reserves

In his first State of the Union address to a Democratic-controlled Congress, President Bush will urge that gasoline consumption be slashed by 20%, the White House said, and try to dissuade lawmakers ready to resist his Iraq war build up.

Bush will say that the fuel-use goal of slashing consumption by 20% by 2017 can be achieved primarily through a sharp escalation in the amount of ethanol and other alternative fuels the federal government mandates must be produced. The rest of the reduction is to come from raising fuel economy standards for passenger cars, Joel Kaplan, White House deputy chief of staff, told reporters in a briefing several hours ahead of before Bush's televised prime-time speech. Bush had been expected to address America's energy problems in tonight's speech.

Some alternative energy companies, especially ethanol producers, rallied on the news.

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Also in the energy arena, the president is asking Congress to double the current capacity of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. A protection against emergency oil market disruptions, the reserve can now hold about 727 million barrels, and Congress has authorized it to go to 1 billion. Bush wants the capacity increased further, to 1.5 billion barrels. Energy Secretary Sam Bodman told reporters this afternoon that the government would start buying oil for the reserve in about two months at a rate of approximately 100,000 barrels a day. Oil prices surged after the announcement.

In tonight's address before a joint session of Congress, Bush was not expected to rehash the speech he gave less than two weeks ago laying out his revamped war plan.

Instead, he was expected in the 9 p.m. New York time speech to broadly defend his argument that success in Iraq is indispensable to making Americans safer in the era of terrorism.

Bush was not going to ignore the range of Iraq resolutions now pending on Capitol Hill that express everything from doubt to outright opposition. He planned, indeed, to make it clear how he thought they should vote when the various anti-war resolutions come to the House and Senate floors, said a senior administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid upstaging the president.

Democrats scheduled freshman Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va. a Vietnam war veteran who opposed Bush's invasion of Iraq, to deliver their televised response.

"They don't have a plan," Webb said in a preview of his remarks. "What they have put on the table is more a tactical adjustment."

The president was going before lawmakers with a much-abbreviated topic list, hoping to capture the public's attention at a time when 2008 presidential contenders and Capitol Hill's new Democratic leaders present fierce competition for headlines. So he is dangling new and recycled ideas in four main areas -- energy, education, immigration and health care.

With debate over the Iraq war sending even Republicans scurrying away from the president and his relatively low job approval rating, Bush's overall agenda for the speech was twofold: present himself as a leader with a sincere desire to work across party lines on practical solutions and pressure Democratic leaders to either go along or offer alternatives.

The White House promised the president would be bold. But spiraling war expenses and huge federal deficits preclude anything too costly.

He also was to announce plans for a "state of the economy" speech next week from a location outside Washington, an address intended to further explain his pledges to achieve a budget surplus within five years, reduce the congressional practice of "earmarking" pet projects and confront financial challenges facing Social Security and Medicare.