WILLIAMSBURG, Va. – Relying on self-deprecating jokes, unusual candor and outright flattery, President Bush on Saturday wooed lawmakers he not only needs but will have to answer to in the final two years of his presidency.
Bush had not seen fit to attend a Democratic congressional retreat since 2001, his first year in office. But the new political reality that has Democrats in charge of Capitol Hill for the first time in a dozen years changed his mind. When he appeared before House Democrats at a Virginia resort, he seemed to be trying to make up for lost time.
With his first words, he sought to put to rest one bone of contention between the White House and the new congressional majority: The dropped "ic."
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Democrats found it demeaning when the president, in his State of the Union address last month, referred to the "Democrat majority," as opposed to the "Democratic majority."
"Now look, my diction isn't all that good," Bush told the 200 lawmakers who wrapped up two days away from Washington with family and aides. "I have been accused of occasionally mangling the English language. And so I appreciate you inviting the head of the Republic Party."
He got hearty laughs. And he was careful to keep the "ic" firmly tacked on for the rest of his remarks.
Bush's address was followed by a private session. With the media ushered out of the room, lawmakers were allowed to ask the president a half-dozen questions that covered Iraq, immigration, education and other topics.
Even though this was expected to be the toughest part of Bush's foray onto Democratic turf, both he and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (news, bio, voting record) of California emerged with good things to say.
"We were honored by your presence," Pelosi told Bush. "We're also encouraged by your remarks."
Speaking to reporters after the president had departed for Washington, she added: "Let's make no mistake. The choice is bipartisanship or stalemate. We have to work together."
Still, divisions over Iraq were never far.
One of the primary topics at the retreat was how to legislate opposition to Bush's overhauled Iraq strategy, which involves adding 21,500 troops to the 132,000 already in the country.
Democrats have not settled conclusively on the approach for any anti-war resolution or on what action to take if the buildup fails to halt the violence.
Bush explained how he settled on his proposal.
"I listened to many members here. I listened to members of my own party. I listened to the military and came up with a plan that I genuinely believe has the best of succeeding," he said.
The president earned applause for repeating his insistence that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government in Baghdad must show tangible improvement on the political front. "The Maliki government is going to have to show strong leadership," Bush said.
Seeking to earn his bipartisan stripes, he also said that opposing him on the war — as many in the room do — does not mean "you don't share the same sense of patriotism I do."
"You know, I welcome debate in a time of war and I hope you know that," the president said. "These are tough times, but there's no doubt in my mind that you want to secure this homeland as much as I do."
Bush's conciliatory words were similar to statements he has made before. But the applause offered some indication that this audience was pleased to hear them so directly and in person.
In the private session, Bush told the Democrats he empathizes with their anguish, saying the war is "sapping our soul," according to two officials who attended the session. They spoke on condition of anonymity because it was a closed meeting.
Pelosi heard nothing to suggest the president is bending to any criticism.
"The president really stood his ground on Iraq. He explained why additional troops would be needed and why it would work this time," she said, adding parenthetically, "even though it had failed four times before."
No matter the topic, the president stayed on point, saying he wants to work together on "big things" and he respects that Democrats disagree on some issues:
— On balancing the budget and the spending blueprint for 2008 that he submits Monday to Congress, he said, "Some of it you'll like, some of it you won't like, but it achieves the goal that we have said, which is to balance the budget."
— On addressing the looming insolvency of entitlement programs such as Social Security, he said, "I'm under no illusions of how hard it's going to be. The only thing I want to share with you is, is my desire to see if we can't work together to get it done."
— On his proposal to make health insurance more available through changes in tax laws, he said, "I've already heard from some members who thought it was a lousy idea, I understand that. But please look at it in depth."
Bush brushed past the veto threats his aides have issued for one-third of the agenda that Pelosi's caucus approved in the House's first 100 hours of the year.
Instead, he focused on compliments, on the Democrats' choice of Pelosi — "this fine woman" — as the first female speaker ever and for their approval this past week of billions for fighting AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis overseas.
"I look forward to working with you," he said. "I know you've probably heard that and you doubt whether it's true. It's true."
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