Bush's push for compromise is greeted with skepticism

President encounters wary Democrats and some Republican opposition

February 02, 2007|By David Nitkin and Matthew Hay Brown | David Nitkin and Matthew Hay Brown,Sun reporters

WASHINGTON -- President Bush ventures into hostile territory tomorrow to pitch bipartisanship to House Democrats, but congressional leaders say they are skeptical about the chances for much progress.

Not only is the president seeking compromise with Democrats who are in charge of Congress for the first time in his presidency, he is also facing increasing opposition from members of his own party on everything from Iraq to immigration.

Bush's remarks at the House Democrats' retreat in Williamsburg, Va. - the first time he has addressed the group since 2001 - will likely echo his call for bipartisan agreements in his State of the Union address, according to aides.

"The president thinks there is considerable opportunity for the White House and Democrats and Republicans in Congress to work together on a series of issues that people care about," White House press secretary Tony Snow said yesterday.

But top House Democrats said that the president has far to go to bridge a divide he helped create, and that the Bush administration's go-it-alone strategy will be difficult to put in the past.

"For six years, he's had a rubber-stamp Congress. It's no longer true," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Montgomery County, head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "We'll have to see if this White House is willing to make the compromises necessary to reach solutions."

Bush's Virginia appearance reflects his new focus on domestic issues, even as Iraq continues to be the dominant issue in the country and on Capitol Hill, where the Senate is debating a nonbinding resolution challenging the president's policy.

The outreach effort comes with distrust in Washington at a peak and the 2008 presidential election muddying the chances for compromise on issues such as immigration and health care, analysts say.

"His father tried the same thing, with disastrous results," said Ross K. Baker, a Rutgers University political science professor, referring to President George H.W. Bush's 1990 budget accord that violated his pledge not to raise taxes. "I just wonder how he thinks he is going to succeed in a much more poisoned environment."

"It seems to me that it is kind of theatrics," Baker added. "There is just too much water over the dam to reconstruct a bipartisan atmosphere at this point."

Conservative Republicans say they are concerned about the costs and direction of policies that could result from a Republican president working with the Democratic majority on issues such as education spending and overhauling Social Security.

"House conservatives are bracing for an effort by Democrats to seize on this president's domestic priorities and double the ante," said Rep. Mike Pence, an Indiana Republican. "What we could find ourselves in is a headlong rush for more government spending, more government control."

Immigration is a key area where Democrats are ready to work with Republicans, said Democratic Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland. But here, she said, "he's got to deal with his own party."

Bush's proposals to establish a guest worker program and create a pathway by which some immigrants who have entered the United States illegally could gain citizenship have drawn support from Democrats, but Republican opposition blocked action in the last Congress.

Rep. Steve King of Iowa, a senior Republican on a House immigration subcommittee, said in a statement last month that "Americans are not going to stand for an amnesty plan pushed down their throats."

With polls showing that voters believe the U.S. economy is on solid footing, and opposition running high against his Iraq policy, Bush's outreach to Democrats is heavily focused on domestic issues.

Nationwide, nearly four in 10 people - 37 percent - in a CBS News survey released last week said they approved of the way Bush is handling the economy, compared with 24 percent who supported his handling of Iraq. (In Maryland, the numbers are worse: Gonzales Research & Marketing Strategies said this week that 19 percent of state voters approve of the president's performance on Iraq.)

The CBS survey revealed deep skepticism about prospects for cooperation in Washington. Sixty-two percent said the president and Congress "will not be able to work together" during the coming year, while 32 percent said they would. The survey, conducted Jan. 18-21, has a margin of error of 3 percentage points.

Ron Nessen, press secretary to former President Gerald R. Ford and a communications chief at the Brookings Institution, said he takes the president at "face value" when he says he is sincere about bipartisan solutions. Still, Nessen said he is uncertain that political realities will allow such compromises to flourish.

"The baseline question is: Do either one of them want to get anything done?" Nessen asked.

Recent history shows that bipartisan accords might yield smart policy, but they also produce questionable political results.

Bush's father lost his 1992 re-election bid after the budget and tax deal. In 1996, congressional Republicans worked with President Bill Clinton on welfare reform and budget balancing, only to see the president re-elected.

"Conditions are ripe on one side for bipartisanship: the president's side," said Allan J. Lichtman, an American University professor who ran for Senate last year in Maryland as a liberal Democrat. "Democrats have absolutely no incentive to negotiate. ... The hard truth is the Democrats will do best if the country is very unhappy with the conduct of the Bush administration."

david.nitkin@baltsun.com matthew.brown@baltsun.com

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