"I return to Washington...ready to make my case and ready to work with folks on both sides of the aisle."
--President Bush, trying to set a bipartisan tone for his fall agenda
The president is back in residence at the White House after 26 days away in Texas, and faces what by all accounts is a challenging fall season. His real return to work begins on Labor Day, when he'll travel to battleground states in the Midwest, reaching out to union workers and stumping for his budget. Bush will also launch a long-planned campaign to highlight "family values" initiatives, promoting his faith-based charity initiative and education reform.
But the newly energized Democrats will likely force the president to focus on the less pleasant topic of the disappearing surplus. Democratic congressional leaders began the budget battle in earnest on Wednesday, demanding a meeting with Bush to discuss "our serious concerns about the deteriorating condition of the federal budget and the nation's economy." The White House insisted that meetings were already in the works, but House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., told Salon he'd heard no such thing. In any event, Bush plans to meet with congressional Democrats next week.
Meanwhile, he's looking forward to having an old friend visit him at the White House as well. Mexican president Vicente Fox will arrive in Washington next week, and Bush will throw the first state dinner of his presidency in Fox's honor. Though Bush and Fox remain good buddies, conservative critics have forced the president to back away from the aggressive immigration reform measures that Fox has advocated. Rather than push for a broad amnesty for millions of Mexican nationals who are in America illegally -- an approach that the administration had tentatively embraced-Bush will commit only to a handful of broad principles on immigration reform when he speaks with Fox.
Bush must also decide how hard to push on his energy reform package, which won a surprising early victory in the House before the president's break. Fall is considered a tough time to sell such a package, with concerns about high gasoline prices diminishing with the end of the summer driving season. In addition, Bush may have to worry about whether a new energy policy push will reanimate Democratic calls for an investigation of the role private industry played in drafting the administration's energy plan.
There will be few easy issues for Bush to concentrate on in the coming weeks, though he'll try his best to keep non-controversial "compassionate conservative" issues on the front burner. But deficit hawk Democrats -and the struggling economy-will make that tough.
And don't miss international protests marking Secretary of State Colin Powell's absence from the U.N. conference on racism. Though the administration cited concerns about anti-Israel language, Powell's decision to stay home prompted critics at home and abroad to blast Bush for being squeamish about race issues.
Friday schedule: After ending his extended vacation in Texas, Bush will put in a day of work at the White House, and depart this afternoon for a weekend at Camp David.
This day in Bush history
Aug. 31, 1988: The press plane accompanying Republican presidential hopeful George Bush breaks down for the fourth time in two weeks. Engine failure forced the grounding of the plane, leaving about 50 reporters covering Bush stranded temporarily at Andrews Air Force base. When asked whether he felt embarrassed by the plane's latest failure, Bush spokesman Mark Goodin replied, "At this point, nothing is embarrassing."
Word play: Bush vs. Gephardt
As Washington prepares for the fall budget battle, Democratic leaders Tom Daschle and Richard Gephardt sent President Bush a friendly political communiqué requesting a meeting so that the president could "provide specific guidance on how you intend to pay for the additional initiatives that you are calling for."
White House spokesman Scott McClellan told the New York Times Wednesday the Democrats' letter was "odd" because Bush already had a meeting scheduled with Daschle on Tuesday, and one with Gephardt three days later.
But according to Gephardt spokesman Eric Smith, that was the first Gephardt's office had heard of it. When asked about plans for Gephardt to meet with the president, Smith said, "There are none. The White House said yesterday that there were, but they never bothered to invite us until today. They called today to invite us, but we haven't been able to confirm a meeting yet. They told the press a full 24 hours before they invited us."
Indeed earlier Wednesday, White House spokeswoman Claire Buchan was quoted in a Reuters story saying Bush had no immediate plans to meet with the Democratic leaders, but would "reach out to lawmakers in both parties on the budget."
-- Anthony York
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