WASHINGTON -- President Bush suggested to 2,000 hand-picked supporters in his backyard last night that, together, they might work around the Congress to solve America's problems.
Saying he was "disappointed but not surprised" at Congress' inaction on the domestic policy agenda he had set out in his State of the Union address, he added: "We cannot let Congress discourage or deter us from meeting our responsibilities."
The president had assembled the supporters to blame lawmakers for the nation's failure to address serious domestic problems. But after two days of pre-emptive strikes by Democratic congressional leaders, Mr. Bush softened his rhetoric.
Instead he laid out a philosophical approach to domestic issues, making government only one player in a partnership that would include the private sector as well as the community and volunteer organizations represented in yesterday's gathering.
"The Congress can refer our proposals to its committees, tie itself upwith debate and produce complicated, expensive, unworkable legislation," Mr. Bush said. "But in the end, we must carry forward the magic of America. We must carry forward what is good, and reach out and embrace what is best," he said.
Last month, amid the euphoria of the allied victory in the Persian Gulf, Mr. Bush set a 100-day deadline for action on just two pieces of legislation: a crime package that failed to get through last year and a $105 billion reauthorization of the federal highway program.
"It is hard for the American people to understand why a bill to fight crime cannot be enacted in a hundred days or why Congress can't pass a highway bill in a hundred days," Mr. Bush said. But "America's problem-solving does not begin or end with the Congress," he added.
After a few opening remarks, however, Mr. Bush barely mentioned those bills or any other specific legislation.
"You bring to life the genius of the American spirit, and it is through you and with you that we can solve our most pressing problems," he told his guests.
The White House announced in advance that there would be no new proposals, and the major networks declined to broadcast the 30-minute, prime-time speech.
Still enjoying postwar popularity but increasingly under attack for an uninspired domestic agenda, the president decided five or six weeks ago that he needed to explain himself better, said White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater.
The themes sounded last night were also intended as a prelude to Mr. Bush's 1992 re-election campaign, the spokesman said.
Mr. Bush acknowledged that "not all Americans are living the American dream" and that "each of us must resolve in our own hearts that . . . it's time to do better, much, much better."
Democratic congressional leaders moved to defend themselves from Mr. Bush's attack even before the last night's speech was delivered.
House Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt, D-Mo., dismissed Mr. Bush's complaints as meaningless grandstanding typical of a "Polaroid presidency."
"The real story is, of course, thatthis president has only a calendar and not a domestic agenda," Mr. Gephardt charged.
Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell, D-Maine, said Tuesday that the White House gambit of setting a 100-day period represented a "new low in political cynicism."
"The so-called 100-day deadline is a completely arbitrary date picked by the president for what has become clear are political reasons," Mr. Mitchell said.
The House has passed a gun control measure that would require a seven-day waiting period on the purchase of handguns, which Mr. Bush has hinted he might accept if elements of his crime package were also attached.
The Senate began work yesterday on the highway measure and was scheduled to take up the crime legislation after work on the transportation measure.
The audience assembled on the White House south lawn last night to hear the president's speech was described by Mr. Fitzwater as a "broad cross section" of American society, but it was a crowd that would be sympathetic to Mr. Bush's views.
President's legislative proposals
* Strengthen the death penalty statute to meet court tests; extend provisions to include drug traffickers facing life imprisonment and "drug kingpins" who kill judges and others in the judicial system to avoid prosecution.
* Limit to one year the period during which prisoners condemned to death by state courts can challenge the constitutionality of proceedings.
* Institute a "good faith" exception to a rule that prohibits the use of evidence in court that was inadvertently gained without meeting the legal tests for search and seizure. A limited exception would also be allowed in instances in which the evidence is a gun -- no matter how it was obtained.
* Impose a 10-year mandatory prison term for the use of a semiautomatic firearm in a drug-trafficking offense or violent felony.
* Declare a general ban on gun magazines that enable a firearm to fire more than 15 rounds without reloading.
* Change the habeas corpus law to prevent prisoners from filing what Mr. Bush calls "frivolous and repetitive appeals that clog the criminal justice system."
* Authorize a 150,000-mile national highway system made of new and existing thoroughfares.
* Establish a formula for the distribution of Highway Trust Funds to the states based on such considerations as the linear mileage of existing roadways, per capita gas consumption and square miles of land. Western states with lots of land and few residents would fare best under Mr. Bush's proposal, but there are several alternative formulas under consideration.
* Boost federal spending for road and bridge repair by 5percent over five years, increase federal highway financing by 39 percent, and provide 25 percent more federal money for mass transit projects.
* Include new incentives for private-sector investment in tolroads.
'Washington Bureau of The Sun