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Bush Focuses on Iraq at GOP Retreat

President Bush spent nearly two hours at the House Republican retreat today in further efforts to build support for his Iraq War strategy and to allay concerns that Congressional Republicans could be sidelined in the legislative process under Democratic control.

“I appreciate your understanding that we’re still a nation at war,” Bush told the nearly 160 Members in attendance. “You know, when I talked to the country the other night, I wish I could have reported differently, but it’s not the truth and it’s not the reality. There’s an enemy out there that would still like to strike us. And as I said, and I know most of you believe, the best way to defend this country is to stay on the offense and bring the enemy to justice before they hurt us again.”

While Bush’s opening remarks received lukewarm applause — they largely mirrored his State of the Union address on Tuesday — House Chief Deputy Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said Bush received “several” standing ovations in the closed-door question-and-answer session afterward.

“It did a lot of good to have the president here, and to have Members hear him, and be able to confront him if they had a question about policy, and to hear him and his conviction to continue to win and do all we can to succeed in Iraq,” Cantor said.

The House and Senate are on track to vote on a resolution soon that is expected to be a referendum on Bush’s war plan. Democratic leaders have said they expect significant bipartisan support opposing the president’s strategy.

However, Cantor said recent Whip meetings have shown encouraging signs that the GOP may be more unified than Democrats anticipate.

“I’ve gotten a lot of positive reception,” Cantor said. “I think, again, this was an opportunity for Members to get together and to understand that we are a party of principle and to stand up and do all we can to back the commander in chief and succeed and win in Iraq.”

Approximately 15 Members questioned the president on Iraq and a range of policy matters, including health care and immigration.

“This was a full discussion,” said House Republican Conference Chairman Adam Putnam (Fla.), who said the president helped assure Republicans they will not be cut out of the process in the 110th Congress.

“He’s no triangulator,” Putnam said.

Putnam added that while Bush strongly advocated his policy in Iraq, he did not expressly ask House Members for anything in return. “He didn’t say ‘Please support me.’ He said, ‘Here’s what happens if this doesn’t work,’” Putnam said.

Sources in the room said one of the standing ovations was prompted by Rep. Mike Ferguson (R-N.J.), who told Bush that House Members were equally committed to success in Iraq.

As for the Iraq resolution, House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) reiterated Thursday that the leadership would not put pressure on its Members as to how to vote on the floor. “This is a war,” Boehner said. “As a leadership team you can’t make this a party unity vote.”

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