Bush talks policy with a folksy voice

Bipartisan meetings set a cordial tone

January 27, 2001|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - It didn't take long for President Bush to turn on the Texas charm.

In his first six days in office, the president welcomed 90 members of Congress to the White House - including 29 Democrats - for a little meeting, greeting and schmoozing.

It was an initial stride toward making good on his promise to change the tone in Washington, by turning to a strategy that served Bush well in Texas. As governor, he kept his relations with Democratic legislators cozy by paying them visits, remembering first names and listening.

"I hope people are now beginning to realize that when I said the executive branch is willing to work with the legislative branch and do what's right for the country, it's not hollow words," Bush said.

White House aides said it was an upbeat first week for the president, who woke each day around 5:45 a.m., found time to walk his dogs and run on the treadmill despite the busy schedule, and was asleep by 10 p.m.

Yesterday morning, he aimed the charm machine at 32 first-term members of the House of Representatives. Betty McCollum, a Minnesota Democrat, recalled Bush's telling them that while he had met with the leaders of Congress on Wednesday, "he knew our votes, individually, had equal weight. He said that as he was new at his job as president, we were new at our job as congressional members."

Added McCollum: "He certainly had a very approachable style."

After lunch, the president went to work on a bipartisan group of 17 governors, who arrived at the White House to hear about Bush's education agenda. Democratic Gov. Parris N. Glendening of Maryland sat at the table to Bush's left - "appropriately," the governor noted.

"He went out of his way to reach out and put his hand on my shoulder and say, `Now I know some of our perspectives are different ... '" said Glendening, who estimated that Bush touched his shoulder no fewer than four times during the hourlong meeting.

Glendening added, however, that charm can go only so far. The governor said he will never stray from his belief that Bush's school voucher proposal, which would give parents tax dollars to enroll their children in private schools, would take money from public schools. "We can't agree on that, no matter how many times he reaches out," Glendening said.

Since the president's wink-and-a-handshake brand of politics was tested initially on education - an issue the new administration anticipated would draw broad bipartisan support - it remains to be seen how long Bush can keep his relations with Congress smoothed over with the folksy style.

"You've got 535 egos that make up the Congress of the United States, and they love to be stroked," said Leon E. Panetta, a former Democratic congressman who served as President Bill Clinton's chief of staff. "The real question is, as the battles develop, as legislation moves forward, does he at that point reach out to members, or seek the advice of his advisers at the White House?"

Members of Congress, Panetta said, "are very quick to set the president on his own raft if he doesn't stay in close touch."

In coming weeks, Bush is expected to offer details of his $1.3 trillion tax cut proposal, plus his ideas for providing prescription drug benefits to seniors and his plan to funnel billions in federal funds through private and religious charities. All are likely to draw more fire from Democrats.

At least for the first week, Bush was successful in keeping harsh partisan rhetoric to a minimum, even as he made a few policy decisions that roiled Democrats.

On Monday, he signed an executive memorandum blocking U.S. aid to international organizations that provide abortion-related services. Many Democrats opposed the voucher provision in his education package, unveiled Tuesday.

Still, as one member of Congress after another emerged from the White House, even those farthest from Bush on the political spectrum wanted to talk about progress that was made in conversations with Bush, before they raised disagreements on policy.

"I just commend the president for putting education first on the national agenda," said Edward M. Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat who opposes vouchers. "There are some areas of difference, but the overwhelming areas of agreement and support are very, very powerful."

White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said Bush did more last week than give members of Congress face time and added that the "charm factor" may be overplayed.

"Honeymoons don't spring out of nowhere," Fleischer said. "There would not be good reception if the president hadn't proposed good ideas. The real tests are going to come down the road. We're aware of that."

Bush has even taken to giving members of Congress nicknames. Rep. Fred Upton, a Michigan Republican, is "Freddy Boy." Rep. George Miller, a Democrat from California, is "Big George."

But the president knows his limits. Asked what Bush planned to call Kennedy the next time he comes to the White House, his spokesman responded: "Senator."

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