WASHINGTON – At their first breakfast meeting with President Bush in six weeks Thursday, Congressional leaders declared their support for the White House mission in the Middle East.
"Americans support Israel, realize Israel is involved in a fight against terrorism and we will always be there for Israel, but we also have to be a force for peace," House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, D-Mo., said after the session. "To do that, we've got to be together with the administration ... to try to get this done and that takes continuous interchange of information between both branches of government."
Democrats had been grumbling lately about not being consulted as the Mideast situation exploded and Secretary of State Colin Powell was dispatched on his peace mission.
White House consultation over the Mideast has not been "as consistent or regular as I think it should be," Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., said Wednesday.
White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer accused congressional leaders of "bellyaching and whining" and said that White House had arranged "extensive" briefings for lawmakers. National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice was headed to brief Democrats Thursday after briefing Republicans Wednesday.
House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt said once is not enough.
"I talked about the hope we could have a regular, continuous time for a briefing by Condoleezza Rice or someone like that, of not only the leadership in the Congress but the committee chairs and ranking members of foreign affairs and defense. It's a very important time to keep our effort together," he said.
Still, there were signs of bipartisan unity. Daschle dismissed reports that the White House was easing its support of Israel.
"I don't think there has been any diminution of support," he said. Of Powell's trip to the Middle East, Daschle said: "Obviously, we wish Secretary Powell well."
After Sept. 11, leaders of the House and Senate met weekly with Bush for breakfast at the White House. More recently, that became every two weeks —or longer.
Fleischer said that even with the lag, this White House briefs Congress far more than past administrations have.
Bush met with 16 members of the House and Senate, all Republicans, on Wednesday. Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., met later with Bush's congressional liaison to discuss health care and education legislation.
Meanwhile, Powell's peace mission isn't the only Mideast endeavor the White House is involved in and that Congress would like to be briefed on. Officials say Vice President Cheney phoned Syrian President Bashar Assad and warned him to stop Hezbollah from shelling Israel from southern Lebanon.
Fox News has reported that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon asked Cheney to make the call. The vice president is said to have told Assad that Sharon has a very short fuse right now, and suggested Israel could launch an attack if the shelling continues
The leaders also discussed their legislative agenda with Bush. Almost every day recently, the president has picked a different bill pending in the Senate to accuse senators of dragging their feet. Thursday, he was calling on the Senate to pass legislation boosting religious charities, and was highlighting a new tax break that would help up to 84 million tax filers if they give to the needy.
The bill — a scaled-back version of what Bush originally proposed and what the House has approved — would give a new tax break to the 70 percent of tax filers who claim the standard deduction.
Individuals could deduct up to $400 a year in charitable donations; couples $800.
The most contested provision in the House bill would have opened new government programs to churches and other religious groups. It would have allowed the groups to maintain exemptions from civil rights laws and make hiring and firing decisions based on religion, even for projects spending government money.
The Senate bill eliminates this provision, known as charitable choice.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.