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Bush Revives Leaders’ Meetings

President Bush will convene the “Gang of Five” top Congressional leaders at the White House this morning for the first time in months, as sharp partisan divisions over Iraq money and other key elements of the president’s legislative agenda continue to separate lawmakers from their hoped-for adjournment.

White House spokesman Trent Duffy said the remaining agenda will be the main order of business at the meeting with Bush, citing the president’s desire to get Medicare reform and an energy package through Congress before the session is adjourned.

“It’s [an agenda] we can get through if we work on a bipartisan basis,” Duffy said, adding, “A lot of these bills deserve bipartisan support.”

Bush began convening the bipartisan White House sessions shortly after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when the parties shared something of a rough consensus about first steps. But the meetings have since come to be seen as unproductive inside the leaderships of both parties.

Though Duffy described the sessions as a “regular” occurrence — they originally were convened as often as once a week — the president hasn’t hosted one since the summer.

“The president likes to meet with the leadership on both sides of the aisle from time to time,” Duffy said. “This is one of those occasions.”

The leadership group now includes Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

GOP leadership aides said scant progress has been made in previous White House meetings in large part because Republican leaders have come to deeply distrust the motives of their Democratic counterparts.

This wariness has made them skittish about exposing viewpoints and objectives that may ultimately assist their political opponents in forming strategies.

At the same time, the tone of the meetings has grown more contentious as political divisions over Iraq and other issues continue to widen on Capitol Hill.

A GOP leadership source claimed that Pelosi laid into Bush during the last White House session, voicing displeasure with the administration’s handling of post-war Iraq. Republican aides suggested they expect more of the same this morning.

“I’d really be surprised if [Pelosi and Daschle] didn’t go in there and go after Bush, and then walk outside to the cameras and say ‘We went after Bush,’” said one GOP leadership aide, who speculated that the administration simply wants the “optics” of a bipartisan meeting at the White House.

Jenifer Crider, a Pelosi spokeswoman, noted that no staff are permitted in the room during the meetings, and suggested the GOP source may have received an erroneous report about Pelosi’s behavior.

“Leader Pelosi is always very gracious in every meeting,” Crider said.

A senior GOP aide in the Senate suggested the White House session could have some value if Democratic leaders use it to help the Republicans come up with a workable schedule for the remaining business.

“We’re picking up feelings that even the Democrats are getting anxious to get out of here,” the aide said, citing pressures that could make cooperation easier with Pelosi and Daschle.

Privately, Frist has told Senators that negotiators are “very close” to a deal on Medicare. Energy, meanwhile, has been bogged down in the personality mismatch between Senate Finance Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Ways and Means Chairman Bill Thomas (R-Calif.), who are working out details of the final bill. The two lawmakers have been at loggerheads over the energy package’s tax provisions.

Bill Hoagland, a top adviser to Frist, indicated that GOP leaders have received “strong communication” from the president that he wants Medicare and energy completed before Congress adjourns this session.

On a more practical level, Hoagland noted, Congressional action this session on the White House’s key initiatives is critical because there will be little room for energy and Medicare on next year’s Senate calendar. The election season will cut the second session short, and the highway bill and welfare reform, among other measures, have already been given priority for consideration.

“The calendar has already begun to fill up for 2004,” Hoagland said.

Even so, if Republicans are to succeed in clearing the docket before adjournment, it has looked increasingly certain that they will have to do so without the aid of the Senate Democrats.

Speaking with reporters Tuesday, Daschle said that if reports from the Medicare conference in recent days are accurate, “it’s going to become increasingly difficult to anticipate a scenario that allows us to successfully complete our work on this bill.

“All of the signs point virtually in the wrong direction,” he added.

Daschle said Bush needs to get “truly engaged” in working through the details of the Medicare package, and listen “to those of us who are growing in our concern about the direction most of these issues [in Medicare] are taking.”

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