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THE 110TH CONGRESS: CHANGING OF THE GUARD

Bush Shows Democrats Another Side

The president has been making conciliatory gestures to his old foes, the new power brokers.

January 05, 2007|Janet Hook | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — A few years ago, when President Bush announced plans to dump nuclear waste in Sen. Harry Reid's state, it was a political insult so stinging that the Nevada Democrat responded by calling the nation's commander in chief a liar.

Now Reid, the new Senate majority leader, is getting the red-carpet treatment. The administration treated Reid to two military plane rides in one week. He was invited to an intimate White House party, where Bush politely asked what books Reid had been reading lately.

The contrast is a measure of how the deeply ingrained habits of partisan vitriol are being tested -- and may be starting to break down -- as control of Congress changes hands. After Republicans' resounding defeat in the fall election, Bush and his lieutenants are paying attention to Democratic power brokers they had all but ignored for years.

The new speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, got a Christmas Day phone call from Bush at home in San Francisco. New committee chairmen are enjoying quality face time with Cabinet bigwigs. Even potential White House allies from the Democrats' conservative wing had been ignored for the last six years, but are now being ushered into the Oval Office.

Those gestures and other bows to bipartisanship are signs that the swearing-in of the new Congress is not just a fresh start for Democrats; it is the end of an era for Bush, who has had the luxury of governing for most of the last six years with his own party in charge of Congress.

New reality

Now Bush will have to burnish rusty skills at working across the political aisle. And he is facing partners in government who view him with deep suspicion and have relationships with the White House that range from frigid to nonexistent.

"We hope that when the president says compromise, it means more than 'do it my way,' which is what he's meant in the past," Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York, a member of the Democratic leadership, said Wednesday after Bush made a Rose Garden statement calling for an effort to find "common ground."

Bipartisan agreement will surely be hard to find on some of the most difficult issues facing the nation, such as proposals to increase U.S. troop levels in Iraq, shore up the finances of Social Security or balance the federal budget.

But on other, narrower issues, such as overhauling immigration law and cracking down on pork barrel spending, Bush and Democrats in Congress may be able to make common cause.

"It is in the interests of both to try to cut deals where they can -- Bush because he wants to add some accomplishments to his legacy and Democrats because they don't want to be branded obstructionists in the run-up to 2008," said Bruce Buchanan, a political scientist at the University of Texas at Austin.

Reaching out

The White House has been trying to reach out to more Democrats. According to spokeswoman Emily Lawrimore, Bush has held at least 10 postelection meetings and receptions for Congress members, most of them Democrats.

"You'll see even more outreach in the future," she said.

Bush likes to cite his success in dealing with a Democratic-controlled state Legislature while he was Texas governor. A key to that success was his alliance with Democratic Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock. But unlike the current lineup of Democratic leaders in Congress, Bullock was a conservative Democrat who had a close personal relationship with Bush.

Reid is certainly no Bullock. The blunt former boxer didn't stop at calling Bush a liar over his 2002 nuclear waste decision. A few years later, while Bush was abroad, Reid called him a loser. He apologized to Bush for that comment but never retreated from having called him a liar.

The morning after Democrats won control of Congress, Reid said, he was skeptical when Bush called with congratulations and an offer to work together.

"Mr. President," Reid later said he told Bush, "this is what we talked about two years ago, and we haven't been able to accomplish anything."

Bush seemed to allude to Reid's sharp tongue after meeting with him a few days later. Telling reporters that he and Reid had a lot in common as Westerners, Bush said, "We tend to speak the same language -- pretty plain-spoken people -- which should bode well for our relationship."

Reid's tone was different recently when he traveled to South America with a congressional delegation. Meeting with leaders of Bolivia and Ecuador who had been fierce critics of Bush, Reid defended the president's policies, according to Reid spokesman Jim Manley.

The White House arranged for Reid and his delegation to fly to and from South America on a military plane. That was not as unusual as the second flight the administration arranged -- for Reid and Assistant Senate Majority Leader Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) to return from former President Ford's funeral in Michigan by military plane. If Reid and Durbin had taken a commercial flight, they probably would have missed a White House reception Bush gave for new congressional leaders and their spouses Wednesday evening.

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