WASHINGTON -- Sitting down for the first time at the White House with Democratic leaders, President Bush said Wednesday it's time "to come together and get things done" despite expectations of gridlock and acrimony in the nation's capital.
"This is the sixth meeting I've had with legislators since I've been sworn in. It is a habit I intend to keep," Bush said in a Cabinet Room meeting with GOP and Democratic legislative leaders.
In advance of the session, top congressional Democrats said they were ready to cooperate with the new chief executive -- up to a point.
"We are in a sense the only thing standing between what Republicans propose and what becomes law," Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle said Tuesday, a day before he and House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt were meeting with Bush.
"We want to use that responsibility prudently and recognize our new role in as constructive a way as possible."
At a news conference in the Capitol, for example, both men said they thought agreement was possible on education legislation, with the prominent exception of the president's call for vouchers for parents whose children attend failing schools.
When it came to tax cuts, both Daschle, D-S.D., and Gephardt, D-Mo., said they could not accept Bush's $1.6 trillion reduction over 10 years, saying it wouldn't leave room for spending on programs such as education and health care.
Daschle and Gephardt were also expected to raise the issue of campaign finance reform in their session with the new president, as well as renew their call for measures to prevent a repeat of the chaos that plagued last year's presidential election in Florida, said Democratic aides, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
In their meeting, Bush declined to say if he was willing to give ground on tax cuts or vouchers. "I'm certainly not willing to negotiate with myself," he said at a photo opportunity. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott and House Speaker Dennis Hastert were at Bush's sides -- with Daschle and Gephardt sitting next to the GOP leaders.
"Expectations are that we can't come together and get things done. Our mission is to exceed the expectations," Bush said. Asked if he can bridge the differences, Bush said, "We'll have to see. That's part of what a dialogue is all about. It is important for me to understand where there is resistance and why. It all happens with good, honest discussion."
Bush's invitation to the two top congressional Democrats is part of a series of meetings in which he has courted the political opposition with a vengeance.
Daschle and Gephardt used their news conference Tuesday to lay down markers for cooperating with the new president.
The South Dakotan told reporters in the Capitol the new administration "leaves no room in the budget for 'leaving no child behind,"' -- a reference to a Bush campaign slogan.
Gephardt said that with the tax cut, "there virtually is no room in the budget for anything else, if you're not going to invade the Social Security and Medicare funds, which everybody says we're not going to do."
The two were trying to establish a framework for responding to upcoming Bush administration proposals even as they were maximizing unity in their own rank-and-file, aides said.
Gephardt said the first step should be for the new administration and Congress to "reach an agreement if we can on an overall budget so we can see where there is room" for tax cuts and other priorities.
More broadly, Gephardt said the most important decision of the coming two years would be how to allocate the surplus among tax cuts, debt reduction and spending.
Already one Democrat, Sen. Zell Miller of Georgia, has declared his support for Bush's tax cut, but the two Democratic leaders said they doubted there would be many more defections.
Gephardt said the tax cuts passed in the first year of the Reagan presidency in 1981 were too large and led to deficits for more than a decade. "The one thing you're going to find unity in the Democratic Party about, I believe, is not repeating that mistake."
Democrats generally favor smaller tax cuts, and more targeted than Bush has proposed.
Daschle said he hadn't decided how big a tax cut he would support. He added, "we all, as Democrats" believe there are three priorities: paying down the national debt, providing money for programs such as a prescription drug benefit for Medicare, education and expanding health care; and cutting taxes.
He said the tax cut and other tax changes that are likely to be approved would consume "virtually the entire $2.6 trillion" surplus outside of Social Security and Medicare.
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