Bush and the Dems -- Together Again
WILLIAMSBURG, Va. -- After some shuttle diplomacy over the last week or so, the White House agreed to allow House Democrats to ask President Bush a half-dozen questions today at the conclusion of their 48-hour retreat.
That's roughly a third of the number of questions that Bush took a week ago from House Republicans at their retreat on Maryland's Eastern Shore. But Democrats said they were just happy to have Bush paying attention to them -- the first time since 2001 the president came to the annual gathering of Democrats.
Rep. Rahm Emanuel (Ill.), the chairman of the Democratic caucus, had the task of fielding proposed questions from the 200 Democrats assembled here at the Kingsmill Resort, then determining which six lawmakers would get to interrogate Bush.
He chose a group that represents a cross-section of the caucus:
John Tanner (Tenn.), the elder statesman of the conservative Blue Dog Coalition, questioned Bush on budget issues, in advance of the White House planned release Monday of the annual federal budget proposal.
Susan Davis (Calif.) asked Bush about Iraq and the proposed troop surge, while Bennie Thompson (Miss.) inquired about Katrina-related issues. Luis Gutierrez (Ill.) pushed Bush on his immigration plans, Tim Walz (Minn.) asked about veterans' issues and Jay Inslee (Wash.) took the chance to talk about global warming with the president.
In effect, Emanuel and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) tried to cover all the various interests of their caucus: Blue Dogs (Tanner), women (Davis), the Congressional Black Caucus (Thompson), the Hispanic Caucus (Gutierrez), the freshmen class of Democrats (Walz) and enviros (Inslee).
Afterward, few Democrats gave Bush any points on the substance of his answers to their sometimes pointed questions. But Bush appears to have earned some style points for making the trek south and for lingering an additional 20 minutes or so after the session concluded, talking to rank-and-file Democrats and mugging for pictures.
"Our members responded to him in a very collegial way," said House Majority Whip James Clyburn (S.C.).
Other gestures of goodwill by the president included:
* Making light of his use of the phrase "Democrat Party," which many had previously interpreted as a slight. "My diction isn't all that good," Bush quipped at the outset of his talk, a 15-minute speech that was open to the press before the closed-door question-and-answer session. "I appreciate you all inviting the head of the Republic Party."
* Giving big hugs to Pelosi's granddaughter, born just after the November election that swept Pelosi into the speakership. Alexandra Pelosi, who made the documentary "Journeys with George" about the 2000 Bush campaign, was again working her hand-held camera in a front-row seat as the president praised her spirit.
* Appearing at a press availability with Pelosi and the rest of Democratic leadership after the talk with the entire caucus. Bush pledged bipartisanship and determined that the session with Democrats was "relaxed, informative and enjoyable."
That being said, Democrats are still waiting for an official offering of legislative olive branches from the White House. They heard very little of that on the substance of matters Saturday.
Asked if Bush had told them anything in private that indicated he understood their complaints about his Iraq policy, Pelosi paused and then gave a one-word answer.
After some laughter, she gave a serious reply: "The president really stood his ground on Iraq."
Later, Pelosi said she thought that there were two main areas of potential cooperation -- energy issues related to global warming and immigration.
"The choice is bipartisanship or stalemate," she said.
Democrats then headed to catch their Amtrak train back to Washington, still wondering which choice Bush will make.
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