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Bush, Democratic senators pledge to work together — but controversy remains

WASHINGTON — President Bush opened the Oval Office Friday for a second day in a row to Democrats who will rule Capitol Hill next year, and both sides promised cooperation. But Democrats’ heads were shaking over Bush demands for the current lame-duck GOP Congress to enact measures they oppose.
    ‘‘It’s a little bit of a mixed message, sure,’’ said Jim Manley, spokesman for Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid, who is set to be majority leader when his party assumes power in January. ‘‘Folks are scratching their heads a little bit.’’
    Bush invited Reid and the Senate’s No. 2 Democrat, Dick Durbin, to his office for a nearly hourlong meeting aimed at charting a way forward in a government to be divided between a Republican White House and a Democratic Congress.
    Bush had had lunch a day earlier with House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, expected be the next speaker of the House.
    ‘‘My attitude about this is that there is a great opportunity for us to show the country that Republicans and Democrats are equally as patriotic and equally concerned about the future, and that we can work together,’’ said Bush, appearing in a good-natured mood when he, Reid and Durbin appeared before reporters in the Oval Office afterward.
    Reid and Durbin agreed. ‘‘The only way to move forward is with bipartisanship and openness, and to get some results,’’ Reid said. ‘‘And we’ve made a commitment, the four of us here today, that’s what we’re going to do.’’
    Vice President Dick Cheney, who completed the foursome, did not speak in public.
    Bush found common ground in the Western roots he shares with Reid, who is from Nevada. ‘‘We tend to speak the same language, pretty plainspoken people, which should bode well for our relationship,’’ the president said.
    But one of the president’s first public acts after his party’s losses in Tuesday’s elections — voting that was widely seen as a rebuke of his leadership and policies — was to press for an aggressive agenda while Congress remains in GOP hands for the next two months.
    On his list are at least two items deeply controversial to Democrats: legalizing his warrantless eavesdropping program, stalled in the Senate because of a Democratic filibuster threat, and confirming John Bolton to be U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, which Democrats have said is unlikely to happen.
    Durbin had said on Thursday, ‘‘For a Republican Congress to have gone forward for two years and produced so little, and then for the president to come up with a huge agenda for the next two weeks, you have to ask him, ’Why didn’t you use some of the time you spent arguing on some less important issues before?’’’
    White House press secretary Tony Snow said both the eavesdropping and Bolton-nomination issues were crucial, and that Democrats should see their merits.
    ‘‘Bipartisanship works both ways,’’ he said. ‘‘I don’t think you should look at these as necessarily provocative.’’
    Bolton has held the post on a temporary basis for more than a year, and Bush cannot make a second recess appointment of him. Without confirmation, Bolton would have to leave the job in January. Snow said the White House doesn’t consider his nomination dead, despite statements from the Hill that make it seem that way.
    Snow left open the possibility that Bolton could play the same role at the U.N., just with a different title.
    ‘‘I’m not aware of that, but I am not going to rule anything in or out,’’ he said.
    Both Pelosi and Reid complimented Bush after the meetings. Pelosi said ‘‘I think we can find a way to have agreement on’’ the eavesdropping bill while making clear that would involve changes, such as adding some form of judicial review.
    Manley said it was important that Bush was reaching out, noting Reid and the president probably had not met since the summer. But he also said many Democrats on Capitol Hill are skeptical after six years of being largely ignored.
    For their part, Democrats are not shrinking from an agenda that Bush clearly does not like, including funding for embryonic stem cell research, government negotiation of drug prices and reinstating budget rules that would make extending the president’s tax cuts difficult.

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