President Meets with House Democrats at Caucus

President Bush received a warm welcome from House Democrats at their caucus in Williamsburg, Va., this weekend. But the president and his opponents still don't see eye to eye on much of anything.

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REBECCA ROBERTS, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rebecca Roberts.

President Bush spoke at an unusual venue yesterday, the annual retreat of House Democrats. His words to the party now in control of Congress were both candid and cordial, setting the stage for what both sides say could be a season of bipartisanship in Washington. Though neither side signaled any change in outlook or policy, both appeared to be willing to reach out.

Andrea Seabrook attended the retreat in Williamsburg, Virginia, and she has the latest report in NPR's occasional series on Crossing the Divide.

ANDREA SEABROOK: President Bush came to talk with Democrats about serious stuff: about the war, about jobs and immigration, and about bipartisanship. But he opened on a funny note. Mr. Bush acknowledged that for years he and many other Republicans have been needling the opposition by calling it the Democrat Party, avoiding the politically favorable word - democratic - in the party's name. The practice came up in an NPR interview with the president last week and became the subject of several news stories. So this weekend the president offered Democrats something of a mea culpa.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: Now look, my diction isn't all that good.

(Soundbite of laughter)

President BUSH: I have been accused of occasionally mangling the English language, and so I appreciate you inviting the head of the Republic Party.

(Soundbite of laughter and applause)

SEABROOK: In his speech, the president referred to the Democratic Party three times, a small thing to some, but a reminder that words matter, especially in Washington, where words are so much a part of the nation's government and eventually its history.

So when President Bush started talking about more serious issues, like the war in Iraq, it was worth noticing how much his words and his tone had changed, even if the policy had not. For example, he tried to explain to Democrats how he'd arrived at his current strategy for Iraq, a temporary build-up in troops.

President BUSH: I took a lot of time thinking about how best to achieve an objective of a country governing and sustaining and defending itself, a country that will be an ally in this war on terror. 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 chance of succeeding.

SEABROOK: President Bush went so far as to say - according to several Democrats in the room - that the war in Iraq is, quote, "sapping our soul," unquote, though he said this after the media were escorted out of the room. In the private session, Democrats asked a few questions and the president shook hands and kissed the babies present, including a grandchild of Speaker Nancy Pelosi. All in all, it was the most collegial of interactions between political foes. But afterwards Pelosi pointed out that Democrats did not expect, nor did they get, any concessions.

House Speaker NANCY PELOSI (Democrat, California): The president really stood his ground on Iraq. He explained why he thought the additional troops were needed and why the surge would work this time, says she parenthetically when it has failed four times before.

SEABROOK: And Pelosi made few concessions of her own. She made it clear that Democrats will ask the president to justify every dollar he requests for the war in Iraq. And tomorrow the White House is expected to ask for close to a quarter of a trillion dollars over the next 20 months for Iraq and Afghanistan. Also, some of the Democrats here said oversight of the war and other executive branch initiatives will be far more rigorous than it's been. But, Pelosi said, given who's in power right now, officials have little choice but to work together.

Speaker PELOSI: Let's make no mistake. The choice is bipartisanship or stalemate. We have a majority in the Congress; the president has the signature. And we have to work together to pass legislation that has sustainable remedies to the challenges that face the American people. And so we will work together. And again, the common ground for the common good doesn't mean we aren't going to stand our ground when we have major disagreements.

SEABROOK: So while neither side is changing what they say to each other, they seem to be changing the way they say it, and that's an important first step, evident here in President Bush's closing remarks to the Democrats.

President BUSH: So this is a bold agenda for all of us. And I agree, Madame Speaker, there's a chance to show people that we can get beyond the politics of Washington, D.C., that we're able to treat each other with civility and at the same time accomplish big goals. And so I've come, at your kind invitation, to assure the members that I look forward to working with you and doing the best we possibly can do for the good of all American citizens. Thank you for having me.

(Soundbite of applause)

SEABROOK: With this, House Democrats jumped to their feet in a standing ovation for President Bush. And when was the last time you heard that sentence?

Andrea Seabrook, NPR News, Williamsburg, Virginia.

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