By Michael Abramowitz and Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, February 4, 2007
WILLIAMSBURG, Feb. 3 -- President Bush, forced by circumstance to reach out to some of his strongest adversaries, appealed directly to House Democrats on Saturday to work with him to reform the immigration system, limit the cost of Social Security, curb the consumption of gasoline and balance the federal budget.
Visiting the Democrats' annual retreat for the first time since 2001, the president told lawmakers there are "big things" they could accomplish by working together and sought to defuse any bad blood with self-deprecating humor. He opened his public remarks with an allusion to his tendency to mispronounce the name of the rival party by calling it the Democrat Party, seen by many party activists as a calculated insult.
"I appreciate you inviting the head of the Republic Party," Bush said to laughter. He drew scattered applause a few moments later when he used the correct name in calling on the "Democratic Party" to work with him to address the mounting future liabilities of Social Security and Medicare.
Democrats rose to politely applaud Bush before and after the speech, a sign of the outwardly cordial and respectful nature of the day's session.
Democrats had a rare opportunity to question the president directly, using a private session after his speech to press him on Iraq, immigration, global warming, the deficit and the absence of Hurricane Katrina and veterans' issues in his recent State of the Union address. While Bush asked Democrats to keep the conversation private, some people present said he gave no ground on his basic position on the war but was upfront in talking about its impact on the populace.
According to some Democrats present, Rep. Susan A. Davis (Calif.) told Bush about her concern that the military is fighting a war without the rest of the country sharing the sacrifice. Bush disagreed with that proposition, according to the Democrats there; he said that the war is psychologically draining for the entire country and that it is "sapping our souls" in some ways.
Bush also defended his plan to send an additional 21,500 troops to Iraq, saying that they would operate under new rules of engagement and that they could clear and hold troublesome areas. One senior Democratic staffer present said Bush spoke favorably of some of the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group, the commission that recently evaluated the administration's war policy, such as embedding Americans to train Iraqi forces and eventually withdrawing U.S. troops. But he said there is too much sectarian violence to carry out such recommendations immediately.
The friendly tone, as described by officials on both sides of the day's session, was a marked change from a campaign season of heated rhetoric from Bush and the Democrats and followed six years of mistrust and lack of cooperation. As he closed his unsuccessful campaign last year to hold GOP majorities in Congress, for example, Bush described the Democratic war strategy as "The terrorists win, and America loses." In a 2004 interview with the San Francisco Chronicle, Rep. Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), now House speaker, called Bush an "incompetent leader."
Deep divisions remain, especially on the war, and despite the talk of bipartisan goodwill, Pelosi was already making plans Saturday morning for symbolic showdowns with the White House on international affairs. Before Bush arrived at the Kingsmill Resort for the House members' strategy session, she told her caucus that they will be voting on a no-confidence resolution on the president's plan to send additional troops to Iraq.
Moreover, Pelosi told her colleagues that if it appears likely that Bush wants to take the country to war against Iran, the House would take up a bill to deny him the authority to do so, according to Pelosi spokesman Brendan Daly.
Still, both sides may have incentives to cooperate in the next year or so. If Bush has any hope of domestic achievements in the remainder of his term, he must find Democratic votes, while many top Democrats concede they are under some pressure to show that they can be more than just an opposition party.
The president spent close to half an hour shaking hands and greeting people at the end of the question-and-answer session. He also spent time holding and hugging Pelosi's sixth grandchild, born shortly after the November elections. Pelosi's daughter, Alexandra Pelosi, is a documentary filmmaker whose 2002 film "Journeys with George" chronicled the president's 2000 campaign. She had a front-row seat Saturday and was filming the event with a hand-held camera.
"I felt welcomed," Bush said as he and the House speaker met with reporters afterward. "I felt like people understood that I've got pressures on me, like I understand they have pressures on them. And I really hope that the members out there get a sense that I bear no ill will, I bring no animosity about the fact that we may not agree on every position."
Pelosi said she came away "encouraged" by the president's remarks. After Bush left to return to the White House, Pelosi said she believes there is room for compromise with him on three areas: a jobs innovation program, energy independence and immigration.
"The choice is bipartisanship or stalemate," she said.
In the private session, two Democrats -- freshman Rep. Tim Walz (Minn.) and Rep. Bennie Thompson (Miss.) -- pushed the president in separate questions on why he did not talk about veterans' issues or the relief effort for Hurricane Katrina victims in his opening remarks to the caucus or in his State of the Union address.
Bush defended his record in those areas and said his silence in a particular speech should not be interpreted as a lack of concern, Democrats present said. As an example, Bush said he cares about maintaining national parks, even though the subject did not come up in the State of the Union.
Some Democrats said they remain wary of Bush. In his question to the president, Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez (Ill.) said it is difficult for Democrats to trust Bush on immigration after Republicans used the issue "so brutally" against his party in the elections -- a remark that drew a loud ovation from other Democrats, according to people in attendance.
Bush said Democrats are not the only ones with "arrows" in their backs, a reference to the deep divisions in his own party on immigration. He spoke about his desire to combine tough border enforcement and a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, and he indicated a hope to keep politics out of the debate.
After he was pressed by Rep. Jay Inslee (Wash.) about curbing carbon emissions to reduce global warming, Bush strongly defended his environmental record and the progress of the nation. According to some in the room, Bush told Inslee not to assume that he does not care as much about greenhouse gasses as Inslee does.