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Bush, Schwarzenegger Agree to Agree for Now

October 17, 2003|Maura Reynolds and Peter Nicholas | Times Staff Writers

With broad grins and matching gray suits, President Bush and Arnold Schwarzenegger embraced one another physically and politically on Thursday, with the governor-elect putting off a promise to appeal for White House help with California's economic and budget troubles.

Last week, at a news conference following his election victory, Schwarzenegger had said he wanted to meet with Bush "as quickly as possible because I have a whole bunch of business, California business, to talk to him about and to take care of."

"We have been paying -- for each dollar that we have been paying on federal taxes, we only have been getting back 77 cents," he said. "So I want to collect, you know, some of that money."

The meeting came soon enough: a half-hour private conversation at the Mission Inn in Riverside, nine days after the recall election. But Schwarzenegger steered away from detailed requests for federal help, saying afterward that doing so now might have spoiled a chance to cultivate a crucial political friendship.

"I felt the first meeting would be much more beneficial if we start the meeting by building up a relationship and building up a foundation rather than jumping in there right away and asking about specific things," Schwarzenegger said at a news conference, where he spoke against the backdrop of an enormous American flag.

The meeting came during a busy post-election period for Schwarzenegger, who said he is working "from morning to night" interviewing candidates for jobs and studying thousands of resumes.

"That is all we do right now," he said. "Sometimes it goes to midnight."

Next week Schwarzenegger plans to travel to Sacramento, where he is scheduled to meet with legislative leaders. Gov. Gray Davis said Thursday in an interview that he and Schwarzenegger also plan to meet next week. That meeting is expected to take place Thursday in the Capitol, an administration official said.

While Schwarzenegger hopes that a close relationship with Bush can help with the state's budget problems, Bush's aides have made it clear that the president, too, hopes to benefit. Schwarzenegger's election has given Bush's advisors hope that the president could seriously contend for California's electoral votes next year or, at minimum, force the Democratic nominee to spend time and money defending a state that Democrats have been able to count on in the last three presidential elections.

At their meeting, the president and the governor-to-be spent about half their time together in private, without aides in the room. Later they sat together in Bush's limousine for the drive from Riverside to San Bernardino, where Bush delivered a speech to an Inland Empire economic development group. The trip took only 15 minutes because the freeways had been cleared of traffic for the presidential motorcade.

As he began his speech, Bush joked that he had been "able to reflect upon how much we have in common. We both married well. Some accuse us both of not being able to speak the language."

"We both have big biceps," the president continued to laughter from the audience. "Well, two out of three isn't bad."

Throughout Bush's speech -- a defense of his economic policies and efforts to combat terrorism -- Schwarzenegger sat on a chair behind and slightly to the side of the president, clapping intermittently and looking up with his head slightly cocked like an attentive student.

"Arnold Schwarzenegger is going to be a fine and strong leader for California," Bush said. "I'm proud to call him friend."

Schwarzenegger has long been a friend of the Bush family. He served as physical fitness advisor to the president's father, who made a donation to the Schwarzenegger campaign. But Schwarzenegger's relations have been more distant with the younger Bush than with the former president; until Thursday, the two men had not met in person since Bush became governor of Texas in 1994.

Schwarzenegger had raised expectations for his meeting with Bush through his post-election comments about California's need for more federal help than it is getting.

But after his meeting with Bush, the governor-elect said he neither asked for nor was given any commitments that more federal money will flow to California once he is installed as governor.

Nonetheless, he said he remained hopeful.

"This problem was not created overnight, and I don't think we'll solve it overnight," he said. "It will take time. It's important that we form a relationship with the White House, with President Bush, and the White House will be helping us. It was clear during that meeting that they want to help and they will help."

Asked if the White House can afford to be generous in the face of a federal deficit approaching $500 billion, Schwarzenegger reiterated that, "I am absolutely convinced that we can get help .... The White House was very optimistic about that."

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