Battered by charges that his administration is in disarray, President Bush has begun to fire back.

In a series of recent speeches, including appearances Thursday in Houston and in Colorado, Bush has needled the news media, unleashed his first public salvos at Congress and suggested his critics are counseling flash over substance.In an unusual slap at the Democratic-controlled Congress, which he has courted ardently to date in a bid for bipartisan policy cooperation, Bush mildly reproved the lawmakers Thursday for their big spending habits.

"We've got to have some discipline in Congress if we're going to meet our (budget) deficit needs," Bush said in criticizing a Democratic proposal for beefed-up child care spending.

It was a line reminiscent of former president Ronald Reagan's frequent complaints about "tax and spend" Democrats and differed in tone from the "turn-the-other cheek" style previously pursued by Bush even in the heat of the battle over John Tower's nomination to be secretary of defense.

Bush also drew a line in the dust over his proposal for an increase in the minimum wage from $3.35 to $4.25 an hour - a boost that many Democrats say is inadequate. "This is my first - and last - offer," Bush said in Houston. "There will be no compromise."

In four different speeches this week, Bush has challenged those who say he has failed to lay out an agenda in either foreign or domestic policy during his first eight weeks on the job.

On Thursday, he said his critics, some of whom have accused him of pursuing a "little issues" strategy, are missing the point.

"Let's not make the mistake of underestimating education's importance on our national agenda," he said here in reference to his pledge to be the "education president."

"These aren't minor matters or unimportant issues . . . this is an American agenda for the future," Bush said in Houston after running down a list of problems he said must be addressed to "prepare for the future."

"In this kind of work, more is going on than meets the eye - or makes the headlines," he added in a dig at press complaints.

And he implied that those who say he has lost the foreign policy initiative to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev are advising recklessness.

"Some are saying, `You better hurry up. You don't want Mr. Gorbachev to capture the high ground. You don't want him to mold public opinion further in Europe.' Far more important is that we do prudent review of our foreign policy," said Bush.

He vowed that he would move forcefully once his national security team completes its policy evaluations.

"We are prepared to lead this alliance, as the United States has in the past. But I am not going to be pushed into speedy actions because Mr. Gorbachev gives a compelling speech at the United Nations," Bush added in reference to the Soviet leader's pledge last December to sharply cut Moscow's military forces.