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Bush Denies Emergency Levee Aid

The promise of help falls short of what Schwarzenegger had sought during his politically risky visit with the president.

April 22, 2006|Peter Nicholas and James Gerstenzang | Times Staff Writers

SAN JOSE — Hoping to coax more money from Washington, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger pressed his case Friday in a private meeting with President Bush -- a visit that carried some political risk for the governor, given Bush's ebbing popularity among California voters.

The two spoke for about 15 minutes during the drive from a San Jose air field to high-tech Cisco Systems, with the governor calling for more money to fix California's aging levee system and also raising issues related to immigration, a Schwarzenegger aide said. Schwarzenegger has been critical of the federal government's role in policing the nation's borders.

Word from the White House was mixed. In a conference call with reporters before Air Force One even landed in California, a Bush advisor said federal officials would speed environmental permits so repairs could begin on 29 vulnerable levees in the Central Valley.

White House officials also said the federal government might share the cost of fixing the levees, which has been a priority of Schwarzenegger's in his third year in office.

But the Bush administration declined to issue a federal disaster declaration -- a vehicle for additional federal funding and something that Schwarzenegger had requested.

It is "legally inappropriate" to declare a disaster before it happens, said James L. Connaughton, chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

Democrats quickly seized on that announcement.

Fabian Nunez, the Democratic speaker of the state Assembly, cast the White House response as, "Bush to California: Drop dead."

U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said she hoped the governor could "convince the president about the urgency of the issue."

Schwarzenegger aides conceded privately that asking for a federal disaster declaration -- before a disaster had actually taken place -- had been a longshot, and they struck an upbeat note.

Lester Snow, director of the state Department of Water Resources, called the White House message a "positive first step."

Snow said officials would work to ensure that California gets federal permits for levee repairs by June 21. He said he was "absolutely dead certain" that repairs on the 29 levees could be finished by the end of the year if the permits are issued by then.

"We will not accept not getting this done," Snow said.

Bush arrived in San Jose for a weekend visit that was to include stops in West Sacramento, Napa Valley and Rancho Mirage. With Schwarzenegger at his side, he took part in a round-table discussion at Cisco's offices.

At the session, Bush invited the governor to talk about economic competition. Schwarzenegger thanked him and said, "First of all I want to say congratulations ... "

Bush, who has been besieged by criticism of the war in Iraq and has seen his job approval ratings decline, looked out at the audience, raised his hands and said: "On what?"

As the audience laughed, Schwarzenegger quickly explained: He was commending Bush for drawing attention to the issue of competitiveness.

Bush used the occasion to promote his plan to double, over the next decade, the government's spending on basic research in the physical sciences, expand teaching of math and science and extend a now-expired tax credit that promotes research and development.

All are key elements in his plan to improve the nation's capacity to compete in a changing global economy.

Bush also sought to ease concerns about climbing gasoline prices, which this week again passed $3 a gallon in California and other parts of the country.

"I know we're going to have to do something about energy ... to be a competitive nation," the president said. "Part of a competitive agenda means that we have got to deal with problems short-term and long-term, and we got a problem when it comes to our dependence on oil."

He added, in a nod to Californians, "I know the folks here are suffering at the gas pump. Rising gasoline prices is like taking a -- is like a tax, particularly on the working people and the small-business people."

In past presidential visits, Schwarzenegger has kept his distance from Bush, often citing scheduling conflicts. There appears to be little chemistry between the two leaders.

The president's visit comes as Schwarzenegger has made tentative gains in rebuilding his public support following last year's special election, in which all four initiatives he had backed were defeated.

Appearing with Bush was a bit of a gamble for Schwarzenegger -- a gesture that could potentially alienate independent and Democratic voters giving the governor a second look as he runs for reelection.

Bush lost California in both the 2000 and 2004 elections, and his poll numbers are now at historic lows. A Field Poll survey earlier this month showed that 62% of California voters disapproved of the president's performance, while 32% approved -- the lowest ratings he has received from state voters.

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