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CBC Prepping for Rare Bush Meeting

Members of the Congressional Black Caucus said Tuesday they weren’t getting their hopes up in advance of this week’s private meeting with President Bush, the first such planned encounter in two years.

Even as many of the group’s 44 lawmakers confirmed they plan to attend Thursday’s White House meeting, acknowledging the event’s importance, Members offered doubt that the session would yield any tangible results.

“It’s only logical that we have to consider what has happened in the past at these meetings,” said Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.).

Although those sessions, most recently in January 2005, have produced “good discussions,” Cummings asserted: “Quite often it was hard to see significant actions taken as a result of the meetings.”

The Maryland lawmaker added that given that history, Members remain understandably apprehensive about the upcoming meeting.

“One of the things you always wonder about with President Bush is whether this is a photo-op,” Cummings said.

Rep. Artur Davis (Ala.), who attended a December meeting with Bush as a member of the centrist New Democrat Coalition, said he also remains doubtful that the commander in chief is actively reaching out to lawmakers, as opposed to simply seeking support for his own agenda.

“The president is frankly not so eager to hear about other agendas out there,” Davis said. “Bipartisanship isn’t just Democrats agreeing with him. He has to listen to Democrats.”

Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) asserted that even the power-switch that put Democrats in control of Congress — although nonpartisan, the CBC’s membership includes no Republicans — will have little impact on the session’s outcome.

“I expect nothing from the president,” said Conyers, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee.

“We had an election. He didn’t change his course in Iraq,” Conyers added, citing the president’s recent proposal to deploy more than 21,500 additional troops to Iraq, a measure that Democrats have condemned in a nonbinding resolution under debate on the House floor this week. “I don’t hold out any hope that he will be any more helpful to us.”

Nevertheless, Conyers said he plans to attend the meeting and raise issues related to the ongoing restoration efforts from Hurricane Katrina.

CBC Chairwoman Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick (D-Mich.), who requested the White House meeting, declined to discuss which topics will be raised at the summit, stating that the Caucus will address those specifics at its weekly meeting today.

But CBC lawmakers said issues including the Iraq War and Katrina likely will dominate the meeting, along with subjects highlighted on the group’s agenda such as disparities in education and health care.

“It’s important to have a dialogue,” acknowledged Cummings, himself a former CBC chairman. “There may be some things we can do together.”

In particular, Cummings suggested that lawmakers will raise the Gulf Coast cleanup, and some of the bureaucratic hurdles residents continue to face as they seek to rebuild their homes and communities.

“Can he use the power of the presidency to cut the red tape?” Cummings said.

In addition, the Maryland lawmaker said he will focus on the Iraq War, constructing a list of a half-dozen questions, including concerns over whether troops are being properly trained before being deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as whether they are equipped during their service.

Despite anticipated disagreements on issues including Iraq, Cummings said he views the meeting as an opportunity to “plant the seeds” of their proposals with the president.

“We have to try to appeal to his conscience,” Cummings said.

At least a few lawmakers said they are optimistic about the meeting.

Rep. Albert Wynn (D-Md.) said he believes the Democrats’ new status as the House majority will give the CBC more leverage in the discussion “and a bigger voice in the conversation.”

“He will probably be listening with a keener ear,” Wynn added.

Rep. Mel Watt (D-N.C.), who served as CBC chairman when the organization last met with Bush, said: “The president understands that Democrats are in the majority and that does create a difference dynamic.”

But Watt remained cautious, stating that he could not predict “whether that results in anything concrete.”

Former CBC Executive Director Paul Brathwaite asserted that one measure of the success of Thursday’s meeting would be whether lawmakers and the White House make a commitment to meet regularly to gauge progress on their common goals.

“The key has always been what comes next, what about the follow-up,” said Brathwaite, who characterized past meetings with the Bush and lawmakers as substantive, although he declined to discuss details of those private discussions.

“Are there ways to measure progress on any of the things that we’ve talked about, whether it’s Katrina or Iraq or the budget?” added Brathwaite. “There needs to be some sort of benchmark as to whether or not we’re making progress.”

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