WASHINGTON – While President Bush kept a low profile after Republican gains in Tuesday's elections, the White House weighed how to take advantage of GOP control of both houses of Congress.
Following the election that will switch the Senate to GOP control in January, the president stayed out of sight Wednesday, striving to be "gracious,'' spokesman Ari Fleischer said. His aides sought to play down any talk of a mandate that the elections may have handed Bush, who treated himself to a cigar.
But there were signs that that agenda had gained momentum: Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, set to resume chairmanship of the Senate Finance Committee, was already talking Wednesday about making the tax cuts Bush won last year permanent. The cuts in income and estate taxes, among others, are set to expire after a decade.
Fleischer, asked whether Bush would renew his push for making the cuts permanent, said, "Absolutely.''
"The president does think it is vital for certainty in the economy and for fairness for people's lives that the tax cuts be made permanent,'' Fleischer said.
The president and his economic team have decided to hold off on an almost-ready-to-go bundle of new tax cuts until the GOP formally takes over Congress in January, an administration official said.
The official said the White House will try to get lame-duck Senate approval of a Homeland Security Department and guarantee terrorism insurance to businesses.
Behind the scenes, White House officials wrestled with the nuts and bolts of the GOP's new status in the Senate. Many were still shaking off fatigue from a long campaign in which the White House was deeply involved, and from watching election returns deep into the night. Surprise was the order of the day in White House corridors, one official said.
Bush's liaisons to Capitol Hill grappled earlier this week with how to get through a "lame duck'' session, a postelection session that starts next week. Wednesday, it was a whole new set of questions. Who would assume chairmanships in the Senate?
"We literally need to sit here and sort it all out,'' said Trent Duffy, the communications director at the White House Office of Management and Budget.
Fleischer said Bush's two top priorities are the creation of a new Department of Homeland Security, which was approved by the House but stymied by the Democrat-run Senate over labor protections for the agency's employees; and reviving the economy.
He was noncommittal on what measures the White House might take, but did nothing to dampen speculation about a new round of tax cuts.
The White House emphasized bipartisanship Wednesday, and Bush called the Democratic leaders of the House and Senate, Rep. Dick Gephardt and Sen. Tom Daschle, inviting them to breakfast sometime next week. He also called Arkansas Democrat Mark Pryor, who turned back Republican Sen. Tim Hutchinson's bid for a second term.
Bush is meeting Friday with House Speaker Dennis Hastert and Senate Minority Leader — soon to be Majority Leader — Trent Lott.
Thursday evening, Bush was to attend an Iftaar dinner for Muslims, traditionally held at the end of daylong fasts through the month of Ramadan, in the State Dining Room at the White House. He addressed the same dinner last year.