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Bush reaches across partisan divide

He seeks to charm House Democrats and faces tough questions.

February 04, 2007|Noam N. Levey | Times Staff Writer

WILLIAMSBURG, VA. — Venturing into enemy territory, President Bush traveled to a retreat for House Democrats on Saturday to invite the new congressional majority to work with him on immigration, energy and even national security.

"I do know we agree on some things," the president told a ballroom full of lawmakers and their families in a carefully choreographed meeting of Washington's competing centers of power.

Bush sought to turn on the charm for his Democratic rivals, cracking jokes about his diction and showering praise on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco and her new grandson (who also got a hug from the president, days after getting one from former President Clinton).

"I kind of remembered -- help me remember the good old days," Bush said later in brief remarks to reporters. The president had not gone to House Democrats' annual retreat since 2001, shortly after he took office.

But even the meticulous planning that went into the encounter could not conceal the deep divisions between the White House and the Democratic majority on Capitol Hill. Pelosi introduced the president from a lectern bearing the slogan "Governing for a New Direction," but he spoke from his own lectern, emblazoned with the presidential seal, a few feet away.

No issue brought out the divisions more than the war in Iraq. The president devoted less than two minutes of his 16-minute address to the subject. And his attempt to highlight common ground over the feeling that the Iraqi government should do more to bridge sectarian divisions offered little comfort to his critics.

The president suggested, as he has before, that Prime Minister Nouri Maliki would have to meet a list of "benchmarks," including providing adequate troops to help American soldiers in Baghdad.

But Bush did not discuss timetables for Maliki's government or specify consequences if it should fail -- omissions that have been repeatedly criticized by Democrats.

After his speech, Bush faced several tough questions from lawmakers in a private question-and-answer session, according to members of Congress and aides who were in the room.

In response to one question about Iraq, the president, who as recently as a few months ago insisted that America was winning, acknowledged that if he were asked about the conflict by a pollster, he would express concern as well. Large majorities of Americans say they believe the war is going poorly.

Bush also said the war was "sapping our souls," according to people in the room.

"The president's body language changed," one lawmaker said. "He was quite defensive." The White House and the Democratic caucus had carefully negotiated how many questions the president would face, ultimately agreeing that the Democrats could ask six -- and only after reporters left the room.

In addition to the question about Iraq, which was asked by San Diego Rep. Susan A. Davis, lawmakers also asked about immigration, the budget and the government response to Hurricane Katrina.

In public, however, Bush, Pelosi and other Democratic leaders took pains to avoid appearing partisan.

In opening his speech, the president joked about having used the term "Democrat Party" in his recent State of the Union address -- a phrase that some lawmakers interpreted as derogatory.

"Now, look, my diction isn't all that good," the president said. "I have been accused of occasionally mangling the English language. And so I appreciate you inviting the head of the Republic Party."

Democrats laughed appreciatively.

"Still has the touch," Pelosi noted later.

But some of her caucus seemed less impressed.

"I think people were grateful he came. But Iraq is the issue," said Massachusetts Rep. Jim McGovern, who staunchly opposes the war. "It is the issue that concerns most Americans ... and telling jokes and hugging babies is not going to make these tough issues go away."

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