Democrats not toasting bipartisanship by Bush

Most plan to skip 100-day celebration

April 30, 2001|By David L. Greene and Karen Hosler | David L. Greene and Karen Hosler,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - President Bush has invited the entire Congress to the White House for lunch today, envisioning a bipartisan celebration of his first 100 days in office.

But the turnout is expected to be light - partly because most lawmakers spend Mondays in their home states and partly because many Democrats have grown weary of being used as props by a president they say is more accommodating on style than substance.

"I think many of us are a little discouraged that we haven't seen more bipartisanship," said Rep. Albert R. Wynn, a Prince George's County Democrat, who has decided not to attend the lunch even though his district is just a few miles from the White House. "We do not want to appear to be endorsing the first 100 days as a bipartisan success, because in our opinion it is not."

Bush took office pledging to usher in a spirit of bipartisanship and to change the tone in Washington, where Congress is almost evenly divided between the two parties after last year's election.

"I think we're making progress," Bush said in his Saturday radio address. "There's less name-calling and finger-pointing. We're sharing credit. We are learning we can make our points without making enemies."

But the president also has said that bipartisanship must run deeper than polite behavior. "Let us agree to bridge old divides," he said during his address to Congress in February. "But let us also agree that our good will must be dedicated to great goals. Bipartisanship is more than minding our manners, it is doing our duty."

Lawmakers sharply disagree over whether Bush's rhetorical emphasis on bipartisanship has extended beyond good manners to reflect a more inclusive approach to shaping government policy.

Republicans, not surprisingly, tend to be most sympathetic.

"A lot of people who've had the occasion to deal with them say, `This may be a conservative administration, but they do listen, they are respectful. And every now and then, they'll give us something,'" said Rep. Michael N. Castle, a moderate Republican from Delaware.

But Democrats complain that on such issues as tax cuts, spending, family planning, workplace safety and, perhaps most visibly, environmental policy, Bush seems more interested in accommodating Republican conservatives.

"He said he wanted to be the uniter, not the divider," said House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri. "In these 100 days, there's been no collaboration, there's been no negotiation, there's been no consensus-building, there have been no bipartisan conclusions. It is `my way or the highway,' every day."

But bipartisanship seems to be in the eye of the beholder. Republicans say Bush is open to compromise but can hardly be expected to walk away from his own agenda to embrace the Democrats' priorities.

"What bipartisanship is not is simply caving to the other side and pretending there are not significant policy differences and pretending there is room to negotiate and compromise when it's impossible," said Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Baltimore County Republican. "He wants to deal from strength, so he'll be strong, strong, strong, strong, strong until he has to compromise. He's a good poker player."

Different approaches

Bush has taken different approaches on the key legislative issues he has faced so far.

On tax cuts, he maintained a hard line in defense of his $1.6 trillion proposal as it passed the House and said he would accept something less only after the Senate voted to reduce it. But on education, the president began negotiating with key Democrats before his proposals reached the House or Senate floor, in effect allowing Democrats to help craft the legislation.

On campaign finance reform - a top priority of GOP presidential rival Sen. John McCain but not of Bush - the president stood back and said he would let Congress work its will.

"I think his strategy is to do what works," said Rep. Ray LaHood, an Illinois Republican. "In the end, that will probably accomplish his goals."

Democrats say Bush has missed opportunities to foster bipartisanship.

Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, a Baltimore Democrat, said Bush's decision to force his tax-cut package through the House early poisoned any bipartisan mood he was trying to generate.

Cardin said House Democrats felt they were forced to cast unpopular votes against tax cuts because of the president's refusal to compromise early in the process.

"Some of the good will is gone," Cardin said.

Other Democrats say Bush still has an opportunity to produce a tax cut with broad support. "The real test comes when we have important bills and last-minute negotiations," said Sen. Richard J. Durbin, an Illinois Democrat.

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