- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 1, 2001

Black lawmakers who protested President Bush's electoral victory came out of a "cordial" meeting yesterday with the president expressing hope, but standing firm against John Ashcroft's nomination as attorney general.

Members of the Congressional Black Caucus emerged from the 80-minute session wearing smiles, although Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, Maryland Democrat, made their caution clear in a single sentence.

"The jury is still out," he said at a brief news conference after the meeting.

White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer described the meeting to reporters as "cordial" and "not confrontational."

"There was a lot of laughter," he added.

But despite the laughter, four members of the 38-person, all-Democratic caucus did not attend the meeting in the Cabinet Room at the White House, including all three members from Florida, reflecting the deep racial divide over the monthlong recount war in that state.

"At the beginning of the meeting, [Caucus members] said there were some members from Florida whose emotions were too strong to come," Mr. Fleischer told reporters after the meeting.

Mr. Cummings said the Black Caucus told Mr. Bush that Mr. Ashcroft, his choice for attorney general, was not acceptable to them and that more time was spent on that topic than any other.

"We are vehemently against Mr. Ashcroft's appointment," the lawmaker said. "We believe that his policies in the past, his actions, have flown in the face of the concerns of our constituents that the president claims he wants to bring about this year."

Mr. Fleischer said the president defended his choice of Mr. Ashcroft, who is expected to win Senate confirmation to the post this afternoon. The Senate has no black members.

" 'But give [Mr. Ashcroft] a chance,' " Mr. Fleischer quoted the president as saying.

According to Mr. Fleischer, members of the caucus asked the president to make sure the Justice Department will be sensitive to civil rights issues.

"[Mr. Bush] said: 'You got it. My job is to represent everyone, whether they voted for me or not. I hear the concern in people's voices."

Caucus chairman Eddie Bernice Johnson of Texas said the president made several commitments during the meeting, including a promise that the Justice Department will "uphold all the laws," a reference to Mr. Ashcroft's words during his confirmation hearing.

"He also made a lot of very general commitments," Miss Johnson said. "We know that one meeting is not going to be enough. There will be more."

The other deeply divisive issue was electoral reform in the wake of the Florida vote.

"He made a commitment to correct some of those issues so that they do not happen again," Miss Johnson said. "He told us that he had spoken to congressional leadership."

A proposal yesterday was introduced in both chambers of Congress to establish an agency to help research election procedures and make recommendations to states on ways to improve their voting technology and ballot design, more accurately maintain voter rolls and improve procedures for handling military and absentee ballots.

"Election reform is one of the big grievances in the African-American community," said Michigan Rep. John Conyers Jr. "And the president agreed to work with us on it."

Said Mr. Fleischer: "The president said 'If there are areas where people are discriminated against, we need to change it. This is America; everyone deserves the right to vote.' "

The black lawmakers also pushed Mr. Bush on two possible judicial nominations.

"We are still trying to figure out whether he will appoint Ronnie White to the … circuit with the most African-American population but has never had an African-American judge," Mr. Cummings added, referring to a black Missouri Supreme Court judge who was rejected for a federal judgeship in 1999.

The group also urged Mr. Bush to nominate Richmond lawyer Roger Gregory to a federal court judgeship. Mr. Bush made no promises, members said.

The four members who were not at the meeting were Rep. Maxine Waters, California Democrat, and all three members of the caucus from Florida.

Reps. Corrine Brown, Alcee L. Hastings and Carrie P. Meek did not attend because "they felt it is inappropriate at this time," Mr. Cummings said.

No explanation was given for Mrs. Waters' absence.

Mrs. Waters called Mr. Bush's victory "fraudulent" during the joint session of Congress for the ceremonial counting of the Electoral College votes. She also led members of the caucus in staging a walkout from the Jan. 6 ceremony at the Capitol.

The black lawmakers and the Republican president whom blacks voted against by a 10-1 ratio also talked about education, racial profiling, AIDS in both the United States and Africa, and free trade with African nations.

" 'Africa will be a priority of this administration,' " Mr. Fleischer quoted his boss as saying.

Despite the black lawmakers having a long list of grievances and disagreements with Mr. Bush, the meeting never turned ugly.

"If you have somebody who wants to listen and if you have people who feel they are being listened to, you can go through a list of grievances and still have a good meeting," said Mr. Fleischer, who was at the meeting.

Earlier in the day, Rep. Charles B. Rangel of New York said Mr. Bush has made strides in his young presidency to ease lingering animosity between both the parties and the races over the election.

"There's no question, whatever differences we have, I am convinced that the atmosphere in which he has reached out that it would be done in a much more civil way than Republicans and Democrats have been treating each other in the last six years," he said.

The meeting came at the end of a long day in which Mr. Bush also convened his first Cabinet meeting.

In that meeting, he told officials to keep "the highest of ethical standards" and lowest of budgets.

Flanked by Secretary of State Colin Powell and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, Mr. Bush told his team around the Cabinet table "that a dollar spent is somebody's money and that we expect there to be lean budgets."

Mr. Ashcroft and would-be trade representative Robert Zoellick attended despite not having yet won Senate confirmation.

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