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Bush reaches out to conservative Democrats
San Francisco Chronicle


December 13, 2006
Wednesday PM

WASHINGTON -- President Bush is openly wooing moderate and conservative House Democrats as potential allies on a variety of issues as their party prepares to take control of Congress in January.




But the president's effort is running up against a major obstacle. The Democrats he has targeted for cooperation are the same lawmakers who are most critical of the huge budget deficits and increased national debt that have been amassed during Bush's six years in the presidency. They also want major changes in Bush's Iraq policy and have pledged their support for Democratic Speaker-to-be Nancy Pelosi's "six for '06" platform of major legislative items that she will push in the early days of the new Congress.

Bush met with leaders of the 44-member Blue Dog Coalition and the 62-member New Democrat Coalition at the White House last Friday, at his invitation, and all pledged to try to cooperate in the new Congress. But beneath the surface, the tension and the Democrats' pique at being ignored by the Bush White House until now were obvious.

"It was productive," Rep. Mike Ross, D-Ark., a Blue Dog leader, said after the session that lasted almost an hour. "It was a good first step toward opening a line of communication.

"But it took losing control of the House to make him do it."

The conservative Blue Dogs are positively deficit-obsessed. In the public corridors outside their House offices, they post bulletin boards listing the total federal debt, $8.648 trillion, up from $5.63 trillion when Bush took office, and each American's share of the current debt, roughly $29,000.

Under Bush, the net cumulative federal budget deficit has totaled about $1.38 trillion, although it has fallen significantly this year.

The Blue Dogs have a 12-point plan for "fiscal responsibility and accountability" that Ross said he presented to the president, who seemed interested even though in six years he has never vetoed spending bills, which have helped raise federal spending apart from Social Security from $1.86 trillion in 2001 to $2.65 trillion currently.

The budget surpluses of Democratic President Bill Clinton's last years have turned into large deficits.

"We have to begin to return to the surplus that President Clinton left us with," said Ross, whose group has endorsed the Democratic leadership's plan to return to "pay-go" budgeting, which aims to fund the federal budget without boosting the deficit.

That probably would involve either spending cuts or higher taxes. But Democrats say they don't want to raise personal income taxes except on the very richest Americans who have benefited the most from the Bush tax cuts.

Other issues in which Bush said he hoped to find common ground with the Democrats included immigration, budget reform and Social Security, although Democrats across the board shun Bush's proposal for privatizing Social Security.

The New Democrats, chaired by Rep. Ellen Tauscher, D-Calif., came away from the meeting pledging to give bipartisanship a whirl, but also took a dig at the White House.

"This should be the beginning of a broader White House effort to get reacquainted with the Democrats in Congress after neglecting regular consultation over the past six years," the group said in a statement.

White House spokesman Tony Snow said the Democrats were invited as part of a Bush outreach effort that began after Republicans lost both houses of Congress and has intensified since the Iraq Study Group's report last week called for major changes in Bush's Iraq war policy.

"He's going to do what presidents do in a time like this, which is try to build support and build consensus for important initiatives," Snow said.

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