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Hill a Steeper Climb for Bush

White House Hopes to Repair Ties

When President Bush goes before a joint session of the 110th Congress tonight, for the first time in his tenure he will face more opposition than support for his agenda. And it remains to be seen whether Bush’s recent efforts to repair ties with Capitol Hill will be enough to give him the backing he needs to shore up his legacy.

Congressional sources in both parties said Monday that relations between the White House and lawmakers remain strained. Yet, they say, Bush’s recent attempts to reach out to Members — both directly and indirectly — are a welcome sign that he may be willing to change his approach to Congress for good.

“There’s an opportunity to get some bipartisan wins,” said a senior Senate GOP leadership aide. “He didn’t work with the Hill in a bipartisan way before this cycle so we’ll see how he does.

“There’s an opportunity to do something with this. If it’s just happy talk and a friendly handshake and wishing us a happy New Year, then it probably won’t go very far.”

Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said he is optimistic Bush is ready to come to the table to reach consensus on some key issues, but he said the outreach cannot begin and end with tonight’s State of the Union address.

Durbin said Democrats are willing to engage on some of Bush’s proposals, but he “needs to keep the level of contact high” with Congress so the two sides can “roll up our sleeves and hammer things out.

“The bottom line is very clear — Congress cannot pass any major legislation without the president unless we have extraordinary majorities, and the president cannot pass any legislation without a majority in Congress. We are all in this together.”

Bush is all too aware of the landscape.

In the weeks since the Nov. 7 elections, the president has held numerous bipartisan meetings with Senators and House Members at the White House, his staff meets regularly with senior Republican Hill aides, and he’s even tried to be a bit more social — inviting the top GOP leaders from the House and Senate for a weekend retreat at Camp David earlier this month.

Bush has even accepted an invitation to speak to House Democrats during their annual issues retreat on Feb. 3. It will be the president’s first time addressing the Democratic Caucus since he was first sworn into office in early 2001.

Durbin joked that he’s spent so much time at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. lately that he’s “bringing a coffee cup down to the White House with my name on it.”

Even heading into tonight’s State of the Union address, Bush has tried to keep the communication lines going. His spokesman Tony Snow held a rare meeting with Senate Republican Conference Chairman Jon Kyl (Ariz.) last week to discuss message and strategy, and Snow will hold a conference call today with GOP communications staff to coordinate on the speech.

Additional high-level White House meetings also have taken place with Hill staff in recent days to coordinate with Republican leaders on the message and outline specifics of Bush’s address.

Sen. John Cornyn (Texas), vice chairman of the Senate Republican Conference, said Bush understands he “has to do some relationship maintenance,” and part of that includes “listening to what people have to say and taking that into account in terms of the decisions he makes.”

To reach his goals, Cornyn said: “He’s going to have to be practical. Obviously, he’s not going to get everything he wants. … He’s going to have to give Democrats something they want in order to get something he wants. My sense is he recognizes that’s the only way the last two years of his presidency are going to be a success.”

One senior GOP Senate leadership aide said Bush is approaching this State of the Union address far differently than in the past, but whether he can get the desired results remains to be seen.

“There’s been a greater willingness to share information,” this staffer said of tonight’s speech. “I think they realized that they are in the last two years and they have nothing to lose anymore. Their poll numbers are abysmal. And they want to go out with a strong legacy.

“There’s more of a willingness to work with us because they see the end in sight and want to go out on a high note.”

The latest overtures come on the heels of the 109th Congress that often prompted very public spats between Members and, most notably, between Bush and Republicans. The White House suffered major headaches with the Hill, not only over Bush’s Iraq War policies, but also over parts of his spending agenda and key domestic items like Social Security and immigration reform.

Bush also faced other throwdowns with Congress, one of the most notable occurring last year when the administration decided to allow Dubai Ports World to manage operations at several key U.S. ports. The move left lawmakers in both parties feeling angry and blindsided, and Dubai Ports World eventually backed out of the deal amid the criticism.

Since then, however, Bush worked to install some key Hill operatives to solidify his link with Congress. He beefed up his liaison staff and installed a well-liked and respected chief of staff as well as former Senate aide, Josh Bolten, who in his 10-month tenure has made Congressional relationships a priority.

Bush will use his State of the Union address to lay out his priorities for his final two years in office, heavily lining his platform with calls for domestic reforms like energy independence, education, health care and immigration.

The president also is expected to touch on the dicey issue of Iraq, which has caused a split within GOP ranks over his recent plan to increase troop levels by 21,500.

Another senior Senate Republican staffer admitted tensions remain in the Republican ranks over the Iraq War, and Members are anxious for Bush to shift the subject away from that topic.

That’s a heavy lift, given the war remains center stage, and the growing number of presidential hopefuls will keep the issue in the headlines, the aide acknowledged.

“He needs to find allies on the Hill and he needs to basically rebuild the support he once had in the Congress,” the aide said. “He has two more years left, but there are things we can get done and it’s very important to work to build and strengthen those relationships.”

Newly installed House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said in a memo to reporters on Monday that rhetoric is cheap and if Bush wants to work with Democrats, he needs to truly seek common ground and follow through on public commitments to restore fiscal discipline, expand health care coverage and change the course in Iraq.

“Now is the time for this president to prove that he’s truly committed to doing what he says he will do — even if it means cooperation with Democrats,” Hoyer said.

White House officials recognize it will be impossible to galvanize Congress on the Iraq issue and instead have chosen to put a focus on several domestic items on which they believe they can negotiate.

Sources say while Bush heads out on a multi-city tour to sell his initiatives to the electorate, his Cabinet secretaries and staff will begin a heavy outreach to Capitol Hill to engage with key Senators and Members to try to advance his agenda.

“He needs to stay on it and keep his hands in it,” said a Republican Senate aide. “It’s going to take a lot more of a sales job, and that needs to happen outside of here, too.”

Jim Manley, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), said Democrats want to work with the president, but they have a high bar for his agenda that includes a change of course in Iraq and a solid plan for long-term energy independence.

So far, Manley said, the White House has sent mixed messages about whether they truly want to engage with Congressional Democrats.

“Sen. Reid is glad to hear expressions of bipartisanship coming from the White House, but he’s really got to do a much better job reaching out and working with Democrats on Capitol Hill,” Manley said.