As they do every four years, congressional leaders played polite, quiet hosts to the president yesterday, letting him address the nation from the Capitol steps, then feeding him lunch in the lavish old House chambers. Bushes, Kennedys and Clintons chatted amiably, House Democratic and Republican leaders walked side by side without scowling, and dozens of familiar faces -- James A. Baker III, Dan Quayle, Barbara Bush among them -- greeted old friends in vaulted corridors.
Then, two hours later, normalcy returned, as if President Bush needed a quick reminder that he will confront difficult challenges on Social Security, the deficit, the Iraq war and other issues in a House and Senate where his party holds modest majorities and Democrats feel they have been unduly shunted aside. Republicans had hoped for a quick voice-vote confirmation of Condoleezza Rice as secretary of state. Democrats insisted on a few hours of debate, however, and Republicans, unable to stop them, reluctantly agreed to a nine-hour discussion and roll call next week.
It's not only Democrats, however, who say Bush must somehow ease the Capitol's bitter partisanship if his second term is to be a success.
"This president starts his second term with very little margin to work with, because of the budget and the war," Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) said in an interview. Finding a solution to Social Security's long-term problems, Hagel said, "is going to require some pain, not just talk. I would hope the administration is going to immediately reach out and find some common ground" with Democrats.
Except for the postponement of Rice's all-but-certain confirmation -- which White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. described as "petty politics" in an interview on CNN -- the day was given to displays of comity and bipartisanship that belie Congress's tensions. Karl Rove, the architect of Bush's reelection, sat down for the inaugural luncheon at the same 10-person table as the nation's iconic Democrats -- former president Bill Clinton, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (Mass.). Kennedy joked afterward that they "talked it all over -- we have it all worked out."
The former president said he and Rove talked about the safest of topics: presidential libraries. Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), deposed late in 2002 as majority leader but in charge yesterday as chairman of the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies, said the tradition of holding the swearing-in and a lavish luncheon on Capitol Hill is a way for the executive and legislative branches to get a fresh start together.
"We welcome him to our house," Lott said. "This is when we say to him: Mr. President, we're together. It is bicameral, bipartisan, but this is the congressional inauguration."
The former president told reporters in the Capitol that he urged Bush to ignore those who say a second-term chief executive can accomplish little in his last two or three years. His eighth and final year as president was "probably my third best" in terms of dealing with Congress, Clinton said. "I just don't buy all this lame duck stuff," he said. "I think you've just got to show up for work."
Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) said in a statement that Bush's inaugural address was inspiring, but added: "the hard realities and difficult work that confronts us will not be erased simply by a soaring statement of national purpose. The true test of national leadership begins where rhetoric alone fails to suffice."
Another local Democrat, Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), said he was disappointed that Bush did not include more of a call "to bring people together on both sides of the aisle."
For a few hours, though, the focus was on aisle-crossing pomp. Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) escorted Vice President Cheney into the luncheon, a tradition that dates to the 1897 inauguration of William McKinley, a Republican from Ohio whose political rise has long fascinated Rove. The guests rose and applauded as Bush strode in to "Hail to the Chief" and sat at the head table with Laura Bush.
As the Smithsonian Chamber Players performed a rendition of a minuet once performed for George Washington, the guests dined at tables covered with cut-velvet cloth meant to evoke a rustic theme tied to the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt, who took office in 1901, and the Lewis and Clark Expedition, which began in 1803.
Bush and Cheney were presented with a large photograph of the oath-taking that had been rushed into production and framed before dessert.
They were also given flags that had flown over the Capitol earlier in the day, and 18-inch-high, crystal hurricane lamps from Lenox that had been engraved with an image of the White House for Bush and of the Capitol for Cheney. Guests were presented with elaborate silver goodie bags that contained a cobalt bowl with a pewter rim showing the White House and the Capitol connected by sculpted ribbons.
Rep. John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), who spent the last 10 days before the election on a pro-Bush bus tour through his must-win state, was honored last night at a party featuring the band Soul Solutions. The gala was to get rolling around midnight, about the time the balls sponsored by Bush's inaugural committee were winding down. Boehner said mischievously, "We'll have the last word."