Washington Capping two weeks of aggressive wooing of Democrats, President Bush paid an extraordinary visit to a retreat of Senate Democrats Friday and drew long applause for his vow to "rid the system of rancor."
The closed-door retreat is usually devoted to circling the wagons against Republicans. Senate Democrats have never had a Republican president as a guest before, and President Bill Clinton did not attend GOP conclaves. So the Democrats' invitation, and Bush's eager acceptance, marked a notable if tentative victory in what he calls his "deadly earnest" drive to reduce Washington bickering.
Just 19 hours earlier, 42 of the Senate's 50 Democrats had voted against confirming one of their alumni, John Ashcroft, as Bush's attorney general. But Bush has been courting Capitol Hill with gusto, holding White House meetings with 153 members of Congress 75 Democrats and 78 Republicans.
Bush spoke for 12 minutes. He took five questions and mingled for about 10 minutes, according to the White House.
"It was more than a gesture," said Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del. "I think he sincerely is going to try to figure out how to make it work." Biden said he thought Bush would "have a hard problem" figuring out the actual compromises, and said the president "got off to a bad start" by turning so sharply right with Ashcroft's nomination.
Bush drew laughter from the Democratic senators by beginning with an apology for mixing up two of them earlier in the week. Then Bush said that some people may think he's naive to think he can "rid the system of rancor, but that's my intent."
And bipartisanship has its limits. When asked about reports that Bush had received a standing ovation from the Democrats, one attendee said, "Everybody clapped, and they stood up because he was leaving."
On Sunday, Bush will fly to Pennsylvania to speak to a retreat of House Democrats that is likely to be testier than the Senate session. The president may find himself fielding questions from members of the Congressional Black Caucus who boycotted the group's meeting at the White House this week because of their continued dismay about the outcome of the Florida vote-counting litigation.
After meeting with the Senate Democrats, Bush flew to Williamsburg, Va., for a retreat of House and Senate Republicans. He pledged that "the tone set in the first 14 days will be a consistent tone for however long I happen to be fortunate enough to be your president."
"We'll have our disagreements, we'll fight over principle, and we'll argue over detail, but we'll do so in a way that respects one another," Bush said. "I'm committed to setting a positive tone for the country, and I know you'll join me."
Bush plans to spend next week building support for his tax cut plan, and he gave the Republicans a preview of an argument designed to undermine Democrats' contention that the wealthiest would benefit the most from his proposal.
As Bush rolls out the details of his proposals, he plans to portray the tax system as "unfair to people at the bottom end of the economic ladder." Bush described a "single mom who is working hard to get ahead," making $22,000 a year, who "pays a higher rate on the extra dollar earned than someone who is making $200,000 a year."
After Bush's visit to the Democratic retreat at the Library of Congress, Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., who first suggested the invitation to the president, said Bush "recognized that we have issues we feel very strongly about he invited us to work with him, and he pledged to work with us."
"It was a low-key presentation, and there were no contentious questions," Dorgan added.