WILLIAMSBURG, Va. – President Bush squarely addressed the issue most on the mind of House Democrats, saying Saturday that deep divisions over the Iraq war need not bring anyone's patriotism into question.
"You know, I welcome debate in a time of war and I hope you know that," Bush said in opening remarks at the guest speaker at a retreat that drew about 200 lawmakers to a Virginia resort.
He said disagreeing with him over the war — as many in the room do — does not mean "you don't share the same sense of patriotism I do."
"You can get that thought out of your mind, if that's what some believe," 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 some of his previous statements. But the applause that followed them offered some indication that this audience was happy to hear them so directly and in person.
Democrats, who in November wrestled control of the House from Republicans for the first time in a dozen years, have yet to settle on a legislative response to Bush's war plan. It involves adding 21,500 troops to the 132,000 already in Iraq.
Deciding what any nonbinding resolution in opposition should say or what should be done if the buildup fails to stop the violence were primary topics at the lawmakers' two-day retreat.
Options could include stripping the budget of war money, capping the number of troops in Iraq or refusing to pay for future deployments.
With that in mind, Bush gave his plan a soft sell.
"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," the president said.
He received applause for repeating his insistence that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government in Baghdad must show tangible improvement on the political front.
"I do know we agree on some things and that is that the Maliki government is going to have to show strong leadership," Bush said. "There's benchmarks that they have got to achieve."
Iraq was hardly the only topic on which Bush sought to win over a crowd of skeptics with flattery and acknowledgments of differences of opinion. With Democrats now in charge in the House and Senate, he had little choice.
Among the "big things" he singled out as prospects for bipartisan cooperation were balancing the budget, tackling budget-busting entitlements, immigration overhaul, health care, education and alternative energy production. He also frequently complimented the Democrats for their out-of-the-gate accomplishments since the session began in early January.
"I look forward to working with you," he said. "I know you've probably heard that and doubt whether it's true. It's true."
Already, Bush has granted several of the new majority's demands. He has acknowledged making mistakes in Iraq, fired Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and surrendered the fight for John Bolton to be U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
Reflecting the target set by Democrats, Bush has promised a plan to balance the budget by 2012 after presiding over record deficits and tax cuts. Also, the president tentatively has agreed to increasing the federal minimum wage. The House and Senate have passed competing versions of this legislation.
The president also had a little fun at his own expense, hoping it would prove his willingness to find bipartisan consensus. His reference in his State of the Union address to their party as the "Democrat majority" — as opposed to the "Democratic majority" — caused grumbling and offense and he sought to make up for it.
"Now look, my diction isn't all that good," Bush said to laughter. "I have been accused of occasionally mangling the English language. And so I appreciate you inviting the head of the Republic Party."
After Bush's remarks, reporters were ushered out of the room while lawmakers asked the president a few questions.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California and caucus chairman Rahm Emanuel, R-Ill., said Democrats would focus mostly on the war in Iraq.
White House spokesman Scott Stanzel said the question portion of Bush's appearance was closed to be consistent with his appearances at gatherings of congressional Republicans. At those events, Bush spoke in public but the questioning was closed "to provide frank and open discussion," Stanzel said.
He said Bush last attended the House and Senate Democratic retreats in early 2001, right after he took office.