By Michael Abramowitz and Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, November 10, 2006
President Bush, confronted face to face with the reality of divided government, broke bread with the two top House Democrats at the White House and vowed not to allow partisan divisions to hobble the remaining two years of his presidency.
After meeting separately with his Cabinet and the outgoing GOP congressional leadership, Bush laid out an agenda for the lame-duck congressional session that begins next week, including a nuclear technology deal with India, a free-trade agreement with Vietnam and his plan to permit wiretapping of terrorism suspects without a court warrant.
But prospects for controversial items such as wiretapping legislation seemed remote yesterday, as the concession of Sen. George Allen (R) in Virginia made it official that the Democrats will control that chamber as well as the House come January.
Meeting with reporters in her office after meeting with Bush at the White House, the House speaker-to-be, Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), said Democrats could reach accord with Bush on the legislation but will insist on some kind of judicial review of each wiretap the Justice Department seeks.
Pelosi and Bush offered smiles and pledges of cooperation as they faced reporters in the Oval Office after a lunch of pasta salad in the president's private dining room. "We won't agree on every issue," Bush said. "But we do agree that we love America equally, that we are concerned about the future of the country and that we will do our very best to address big problems."
"We both extended the hand of friendship," said Pelosi, who will be the first female speaker of the House in history when the new Congress convenes.
The meeting was the first substantive discussion between Bush and Democrats since the election Tuesday returned the opposition party to power on Capitol Hill. In recent years, Bush has governed without the support of congressional Democrats on most issues, and the new political reality will require him to work much more closely with Pelosi and the soon-to-be Senate majority leader, Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.). Bush is to meet today with Reid and Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), the next Democratic whip.
Despite deep philosophical differences and sharp election-year rhetoric from both sides, the White House and congressional Democrats may share some interest in finding common ground on such issues as overhauling the immigration system, education and energy, according to lawmakers and administration officials. Democratic leaders seem anxious to show they can deliver as a governing party after years in opposition, while Bush is aware that his final two years will be bereft of any significant initiative unless he can work with the party he demonized on the campaign trail.
Despite conciliatory rhetoric, there were flashes yesterday of the potential obstacles ahead. The White House once again asked the Senate to approve the nomination of controversial U.N. Ambassador John R. Bolton, who holds the post after a recess appointment, but Democrats -- and a key Republican -- quickly moved to block the action. In her interview with reporters, Pelosi said Democrats will act immediately to reinstate lapsed budget rules, which mandate that any new tax cuts or spending increases be paid for with equal spending cuts or tax hikes. That would all but shut the door on Bush's main economic priority, making his first-term tax cuts permanent.
The new House and Senate leadership will also quickly challenge Bush on stem cell research, Pelosi said. Democrats expect to pass legislation early next year that would be almost identical to the only bill he has vetoed, a measure to expand federal funding of stem cells beyond the few lines already in existence. The addition of 29 Democratic seats in the House and six in the Senate is probably not enough to override a veto, Pelosi conceded, but Democrats hope to "build public support for a signature."
But Pelosi and the House's No. 2 Democrat, Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (Md.), who also attended the White House lunch, indicated they came away from their meeting with a sense that they could work with Bush. In an apparent effort to demonstrate goodwill, Pelosi added that Democrats will take up the "innovation agenda" laid out by Bush nearly a year ago in his State of the Union address, and pass his proposals to increase funding for basic scientific research and alternative energy programs.
Hoyer said in an interview that he believed the two sides could also reach agreement on a comprehensive immigration bill that includes both tough enforcement measures and some kind of guest-worker program. Such legislation has been blocked by House GOP leadership, and Hoyer pointed out, "The Senate Democrats and the Senate Republicans and the House Democrats are more in agreement than the president and House Republicans."
Hoyer, who faces a challenge for the job of majority leader from Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.), described the lunch session as a cordial meeting in which a variety of topics -- fiscal policy, Social Security, Medicare and Iraq, among others -- were discussed in general terms. He said Vice President Cheney also attended but said little beyond pleasantries.
"There was no point in time where we said, 'We'll support this, and the president would support that.' That was not the point of the meeting," Hoyer said. He said Pelosi "clearly made the point that the American people believe that we are doing in Iraq is not working, and we need to address it. . . . The president said, 'I hope we can discuss that.' "
Pelosi has indicated that the first order of business when the new House convenes will be a package of bills touted during the campaign that include raising the minimum wage, cutting student loan rates and allowing the federal government to negotiate lower drug prices with pharmaceutical companies -- which Congress barred when it approved a new Medicare drug plan for seniors.
On some issues, Democrats are plainly hoping to put Bush on the defensive with legislation they believe is popular with the American people -- confronting Bush with a choice of whether to go along or fight on unfavorable terrain.
"They are not going to invite each other to their respective Christmas dinners, but I think there's an agenda that Pelosi has put on the table that the president could embrace," said John Podesta, the president of the Center for American Progress and a former Clinton White House chief of staff. "It's kind of galling to him to do it, but the public would reward him. Having to explain to the American people why you wouldn't want the authority to negotiate with drug companies about prices would be hard to do."
Edward Kutler, a Washington lobbyist and former aide to onetime GOP Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.), said the Democrats seem to be dangling "veto bait" before the president that could "poison the well" before too long. "There's possibility for bipartisan compromise," he said, "but there's a limited window and there's a limited universe of issues."
"A lot of Republicans are going to say, the Democrats won -- let's let the Democrats produce legislation and see what can be done," he added.
Once the honeymoon ends, said John J. Pitney Jr., a congressional expert at Claremont McKenna College, "not a lot" will get done. "The relationship is going to be a mix between cooperation and confrontation, but given the chemistry, confrontation is going to be much more prevalent," he said.
Bush could work w ith a Democratic legislature when he was a governor. But, referring to the late conservative Democratic legislative leader in Texas, Pitney asked: "Does Nancy Pelosi look like Bob Bullock? Congressional Democrats are quite different from their counterparts in Austin."
White House counselor Dan Bartlett said of the Pelosi-Bush-Hoyer session: "It genuinely was a positive meeting. The attitude of the Democratic leaders was one of cooperation."
Referring to energy, immigration and education, Bartlett added: "There are issues when you peel back the rhetoric where you find greater consensus."