Saturday, February 03, 2007

Bush Meets With Democrats on Their Turf

President Bush spoke to House Democrats on Saturday.

Published: February 4, 2007
The New York Times

WILLIAMSBURG, Va., Feb. 3 — In a rare appearance before an audience of Democrats, President Bush said Saturday that he did not question the patriotism of those who disagreed with his Iraq strategy. He also asked lawmakers not to let their disagreement over the war stir distrust and prevent them from finding consensus on immigration and other concerns.

“I welcome debate in a time of war, and I hope you know that,” Mr. Bush said. “Nor do I consider a belief that if you don’t happen to agree with me, you don’t share the same sense of patriotism I do. You can get that thought out of your mind if that’s what some believe.”

The president’s words were met with applause from House Democrats, who gathered here at a secluded resort along the James River for their annual issues conference. Newly in control of Congress, Democrats invited Mr. Bush to their retreat, eager to show that they could no longer be overlooked by the White House.

“The choice,” said Representative Nancy Pelosi, the House speaker, “is bipartisanship or stalemate.”

So for nearly two hours, Mr. Bush held forth with some of the very Democrats he has spent the better part of six years sparring with. He delivered a speech to members of Congress and their spouses, took questions in a private session and shook hands and posed for pictures.

“I’m looking forward to working with you,” Mr. Bush said, gesturing to those seated in the crowded ballroom. “I know you’ve probably heard that and you doubt whether it’s true — but it’s true. We’re going to do big things together.”

The political reality, of course, requires Mr. Bush to work with Democrats in the final two years of his presidency if he wants his legacy to include legislation like overhauling the nation’s immigration and health care systems, and beginning to curb America’s dependence on foreign oil.

“A great goal is a comprehensive immigration bill,” Mr. Bush said. “In order to get it done, it’s going to require members in the House and the Senate — Republican members, Democratic members — finding common ground, and the White House wants to help.”

The president’s speech, which lasted about 16 minutes, was interrupted by applause 21 times. Occasionally, the clapping seemed tepid, as some legislators looked across the room to see whether fellow Democrats were joining in. At other times, particularly if Mr. Bush delivered a self-deprecating line, the clapping boomed.

He began his remarks with such a moment, saying he meant no ill will at the State of the Union address when he referred to the lawmakers as members of the “Democrat Party.” The remark stirred a mini-dustup among some Democrats, who believed he was being pejorative.

“Look, my diction isn’t all that good,” Mr. Bush said. “I have been accused of occasionally mangling the English language, so I appreciate you inviting the head of the Republic Party.”

The event’s cordiality stood in contrast to the coming days on Capitol Hill, where the Congress is heading toward a confrontation with the White House over the war in Iraq. In a private question-and-answer session, according to lawmakers in the room, Mr. Bush said he intended to stick by his plan to send more troops to Iraq, but he added that he hoped the debate would be civil.

“We share a common goal,” Mr. Bush said in his public remarks, “and that is to keep America safe.”

In his weekly radio address on Saturday, Mr. Bush said the top priority of the budget he will submit to Congress on Monday was “keeping America safe and winning the war against extremists who want to destroy our way of life.” He intends to request nearly three-quarters of a trillion dollars in military spending.

Mr. Bush did not wade deeply into the specifics of his budget proposals in his speech to Democrats, but he warned with a smile, “Some of it you’ll like, some of it you won’t.”

Before Mr. Bush arrived on Saturday, Representative Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, the House majority leader, conceded that some Democrats were not thrilled about their guest speaker. “There was a little controversy about the president coming,” he said. “Some of our members said, ‘Well, why is he coming down?’ ”

But by the time he left the room, even some of Mr. Bush’s critics were applauding.

“Look, we don’t always agree,” Mr. Bush said. “That’s why we’re in different parties.”


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