WASHINGTON – President Bush is "obviously disappointed" with election results that put Democrats in charge of the House come January, but he spread "good will" Wednesday morning by calling Democratic leaders to congratulate them on their wins.
Bush also took much of the blame for the Republicans' losses but vowed to reach out to Democrats to show the American people that things can get done, no matter the makeup of the legislative and executive branch.
"As the head of the Republican Party, I share a large part of the responsibility," Bush told reporters Wednesday after his party lost control of the House and was barely hanging on to the Senate, with the crucial race in Virginia still in the balance.
"I told my party's leaders that it is now our duty to put the elections behind us and work together with the Democrats and independents on the great issues facing this country," he continued, saying he first called Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi , the putative speaker of the House, early Wednesday morning to congratulate her on her party's gains and to voice his desire to working with Democrats to find "common ground."
"As the majority party in the House of Representatives, they recognize that in their new role they now have greater responsibilities," he said, joking that his first act of bipartisan outreach since the election was sharing with Pelosi the names of some Republican interior decorators.
Bush also called Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and said their party did a "superb job" of turning out their votes.
"I congratulated them on running a strong campaign in the Senate. And I told them that, regardless of the final outcome, we can work together over the next two years," Bush said.
The president invited Democratic leaders to come to the White House in the coming days to talk about the agenda for next year.
Deputy White House press secretary Dana Perino earlier characterized the conversation between Bush and Pelosi as "very friendly" and that they "pledged to work together."
Bush also called Rep. Rahm Emanuel , the head of the Democratic congressional campaign team that helped usher in the 27-seat gain for his party.
"He told Emanuel congratulations on a good race. It was a good effort and he's looking forward to working together," said White House spokesman Tony Fratto.
The president scheduled lunch and coffees this week with Pelosi; her top deputy, Steny Hoyer of Maryland; and their Democratic Senate counterparts, Reid and Durbin.
"In all of those calls, I would say there was a strong spirit of good will and the president said 'Congresses change, but issues don't,'" Perino said.
Americans "voted for change, not necessarily partisan confrontation," Hoyer said. "We're prepared to do that. And if the president wants to meet us halfway, we certainly are going to meet him halfway."
The Senate is still up for grabs, but Democrats may be able to win a razor-thin majority if both the Virginia and Montana Senate seats change hands. That won't be decided until Nov. 27 after the Virginia state election board certifies the ballot count and considers a recount. A recount could also occur in Montana, where the candidates are separated by fewer than 1,800 votes.
Before calling Pelosi, Bush called Republicans, including House Speaker Dennis Hastert , House Majority Leader John Boehner , Senate Majority Whip Mitch McConnell and retiring Majority Leader Bill Frist . Bush did not reach Frist, who was traveling, but he did schedule a bicameral breakfast meeting with Republicans on Thursday.
Bush told Hastert the Republicans had run some good campaigns and it was a rough break for the GOP.
"He thanked him for running strong races around the country — that we fought hard, we have some tough loses, but that we're going to work together as we move forward," Perino said.
The White House said Bush did what he could to prevent the turnover in Congress, campaigning where he is popular and avoiding areas where Republicans would not have benefited from a presidential visit.
Bush to U.S. Enemies: 'Do Not Be Joyful'
Facing the possibility that both houses may be controlled by Democrats, Bush said it's his hope leaders of both parties can work through their differences and show the American people that Washington can still work on important issues facing the country, despite some ideological differences.
He cited reforms such as the No Child Left Behind Act and tax cuts as two examples where lawmakers from both parties successfully worked together to produce meaningful legislation.
"The message yesterday was clear: The American people want their leaders in Washington to set aside partisan differences, conduct ourselves in an ethical manner, and work together to address the challenges facing our nation," Bush said Wednesday. "We live in historic times. The challenges and opportunities are plain for all to see.
"Will this country continue to strengthen our economy today and over the long run? Will we provide a first-class education for our children? And will we be prepared for the global challenges of the 21st century? Will we build upon the recent progress we've made in addressing our energy dependence by aggressively pursuing new technologies to break our addiction to foreign sources of energy?
"And, most importantly: Will this generation of leaders meet our obligation to protect the American people?"
As for Iraq, while Bush argued that not every voter viewed this election as a referendum on the war there, he said he recognizes that many Americans voted to register "their displeasure with the lack of progress being made there."
"Yet, I also believe most Americans and leaders here in Washington from both political parties understand we cannot accept defeat," he said, adding that in the coming weeks, he and his national security team will meet with the members of both parties to brief them on latest developments and listen to their views on how to move forward on that front.
He also vowed to give Congress — especially the new members — briefings "so they can be fully informed as they prepare for their new responsibilities."
One step the administration has taken to round up outside views on Iraq is by commissioning the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, co-chaired by former Secretary of State James Baker and Rep. Lee Hamilton to assess the situation. Bush said he's expecting the panel to give recommendations on how to proceed and that he may meet with them early next week.
"The election has changed many things in Washington, but it has not changed my fundamental responsibility, and that is to protect the American people from attack," Bush said. "As the commander in chief, I take these responsibilities seriously."
Bush also praised Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who resigned his post after his party's defeat Tuesday night. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle as well as former and current military officials have fired criticism at Rumsfeld for his handling of Iraq. Although Bush recently said both Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney would keep their jobs so long as he was in the White House, the administration evidently felt keeping Rumsfeld at the Pentagon wouldn't help their situation.
"After a series of thoughtful conversations, Secretary Rumsfeld and I agreed that the timing is right for new leadership at the Pentagon," Bush said. He asked Bob Gates, the former director of the CIA and current president of Texas A&M University, to take Rumsfeld's place. Gates must be confirmed by the Senate.
Despite the changes taking place in Washington, Bush warned those who may be thinking of attacking America or its interests abroad to not try to take advantage of the political situation.
"Amid this time of change, I have a message for those on the front lines: To our enemies, do not be joyful. Do not confuse the workings of our democracy with a lack of will. Our nation is committed to bringing you to justice. Liberty and democracy are the source of America's strength, and liberty and democracy will lift up the hopes and desires of those you are trying to destroy," he said.
"To the people of Iraq: Do not be fearful. As you take the difficult steps toward democracy and peace, America's going to stand with you. We know you want a better way of life, and now is the time to seize it.
"To our brave men and women in uniform: Don't be doubtful. America will always support you. Our nation is blessed to have men and women who volunteer to serve and are willing to risk their own lives for the safety of our fellow citizens."
Although Republicans have for several years tried to paint Democrats as being weak on national security issues, Bush said he believes Pelosi, Reid and other Democrats "care just about as much" about the security of the United States as he does.
"The enemy's not going away after my presidency," Bush said. "No leader in Washington is going to walk away from protecting the country. We have different views on how to do that, but their spirit is such that they want to protect America. That's what I believe."
He added: "Look, people that's going to be looking at this election, the enemy's going to say, 'Well, it must America is going to leave.' And the answer is no, that doesn't what it means. Our troops are wondering whether or not they're going to get the support they need after this election. Democrats are going to support our troops just like Republicans will."
Some of those Bush did campaign with in recent days did not fare well on Tuesday night, even in red state strongholds. Rep. Jim Ryun in Kansas, Iowa gubernatorial candidate Jim Nussle and Houston councilwoman Shelley Sekula-Gibbs, who was running for the seat vacated by Rep. Tom DeLay, all fell to their opponents.
On Friday, Bush stumped all over Missouri with the state's junior senator, Jim Talent. But it wasn't enough. Talent lost to Democratic state Auditor Claire McCaskill.
Tuesday evening, Bush watched poll returns from the White House study, where he was joined for a dinner of corn bisque and beef loin by political strategist Karl Rove, GOP chairman Ken Mehlman, White House chief of staff Josh Bolten, counselor to the president Dan Bartlett, former Commerce Secretary Don Evans and Brad Freeman, a California venture capitalist and top Bush fundraiser.
The president flew back to Washington after he and first lady Laura Bush voted in their local election in Crawford, Texas. Democratic Rep. Chet Edwards kept that district seat for a ninth term.
Bush made just one phone call on Tuesday night — to Rep. Tom Reynolds, R-N.Y., chairman of the House GOP's election effort, who was re-elected.
FOX News' Greg Kelly and Liza Porteus and The Associated Press contributed to this report .