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Bush, Dem leader meet in Oval Office

Nov. 10, 2006

Associated Press
Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., speaks Thursday with President Bush and members of the media at the White House. Pelosi is expected to become the speaker of the House.

The Associated Press

WASHINGTON -- Now that voters have rejected one-party rule in Washington, can a president of one party and a Congress led by the other play nicely enough to accomplish anything in the next two years?

It's been done in the past.

Still, President Bush and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle will have to put aside at least some of their pre-election rancor and suppress any desire to get even.

For his part, Bush tried to move past the bitter tone of the campaign within hours of its end by granting a top demand of the Democrats: the ouster of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. And he invited newly empowered Democratic leaders to lunch at the White House, serving California Rep. Nancy Pelosi her favorite food, chocolate.

For her part, Pelosi stopped calling Bush incompetent and dangerous. Instead, she made a point of deeming the lunch lovely and speaking of "some areas" where bipartisanship was possible.

Pelosi has made clear that House Democrats will move immediately on their agenda, much of it opposed by Bush, which includes cutting student loan interest rates, funding embryonic stem cell research, authorizing the federal government to negotiate lower drug prices for Medicare patients and imposing a national cap on industrial carbon dioxide emissions.

She also has said that the election results mean Democrats not only want, but expect, Bush to make a change of direction in Iraq .

"I look forward to working in a confidence-building way with the president, recognizing that we have our differences and we will debate them," Pelosi said at the president's side. "We've made history. Now we have to make progress."

For his part, Bush has said that he'll listen to all suggestions on Iraq, except for those that involve pulling troops out before the mission is complete. He also says he still wants congressional approval for war-on-terror tools that Democrats have vigorously questioned.

As Bush's press secretary, Tony Snow, put it, echoing what Bush said a day earlier, the White House's intention is to cooperate but "don't trim back on your principles."

Yet to be seen is whether the conciliatory gestures and promises to work together can endure long enough for Congress and the president to produce laws addressing big problems and restore trust in the government.

Role models exist. So does the motivation to follow their lead as the two years before the 2008 elections tick away. Providing the opportunity: a slate of stalled legislation on immigration, Iraq and terrorism that voters named as important in exit polls this week.

Bush and Congress might follow the lead of President Eisenhower and the new Democratic majority of 1954, which established the Interstate highway system less than two years later.

They can look to President Nixon, who signed into law major environmental initiatives, the Clean Air Act and the Environmental Protection Agency, negotiated with Democratic majorities on Capitol Hill.

Ronald Reagan and the Democratic House and Senate passed legislation sustaining Social Security for another three decades. A key deficit reduction program and the Americans With Disabilities Act became law when Democrats ran the Congress and Bush's father was president.

And in the 1990s, President Clinton and a new Republican majority overhauled the nation's welfare laws, an achievement each side hailed as one of its best.

Many experts say that Democrats and Republicans are too polarized for that to happen now, despite the initial overtures of good will.

"White House officials do not expect that a Democratic-controlled Congress would work with them in any sincere or meaningful way," said George C. Edwards III, a political science professor at Texas A&M University. "True or not, this perception could become a self-fulfilling prophecy."

Democrats admit to struggling with the temptation to get even for six years of being shut out of final negotiations with the White House and majority Republicans on major issues like homeland security, tax cuts and the Medicare prescription drug program.

But both Bush and the Democrats have reasons to mend fences. In the twilight of a wartime presidency, Bush could polish his legacy by reviving his uniter-not-a-divider campaign promise of 2000.

Lawmakers in both parties, some of them beginning what amounts to a two-year job interview for the presidency, also have an incentive to move away from confrontation politics. If they need a reminder, they might look at the 61 percent disapproval rating Congress received in the exit polls this week.

As for Bush, he's got a long way to build on the 43 percent approval rating those same polls gave him.

"There's no way in the world that Democrats can achieve anything if we try to get even," cautioned Rep. Charlie Rangel of New York, the likely next chairman of the Ways and Means Committee.

Opportunities for forging compromises addressing serious problems include:

_ Overhauling immigration policy to bestow legal status on some of the 11 million illegal immigrants in the country.

_ Agreeing on a course for the war in Iraq, the top issue voters identified in pre-election polls.

_ Fixing the alternative minimum tax, a measure that was intended to close tax loopholes for millionaires but that now, through inflation, threatens to impose higher taxes on millions of middle-income families.

_Addressing looming insolvencies in the Social Security and Medicare programs as post-World War II baby boomers retire.

_Improving health programs for the nation's 24 million veterans and the tens of thousands more who will pile into the system as a result of Iraq and Afghan wars.

Associated Press Writer Jennifer Loven contributed to this story.