Congressional Democrats are proving surprisingly receptive to President Bush’s legislative agenda, showing support for his tax cuts and education plan after only two days of presidential persuasion.
“There’s a desire to be cooperative,” said Sen. Bob Graham, Florida Democrat. “We want to be a Congress that has a record of accomplishment.”
Already this week, a group of centrist Democrats has endorsed substantial portions of Mr. Bush’s education plan and Sen. Zell Miller, Georgia Democrat, has co-sponsored a bill to enact Mr. Bush’s $1.6 trillion tax cut.
The willingness of some Democrats to work with Mr. Bush is causing friction in the Democratic ranks. For example, Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle took Mr. Miller to the woodshed Monday for supporting the president’s tax relief.
“We talked,” Mr. Daschle said yesterday, declining to elaborate.
And Sen. Tom Harkin, Iowa Democrat and one of the party’s hard-liners, yesterday characterized an education proposal by centrist Democrats who want to work with Mr. Bush as “not the Democratic Party plan.”
Mr. Harkin dismissed the New Democratic Coalition, which consists of more than 90 House and Senate Democrats, as “a small group.”
The New Democrats’ education plan was put forth by Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, who was Al Gore’s running mate in the presidential election. Mr. Lieberman said he sees “a lot of room for collaboration” with Mr. Bush’s education plan.
But Mr. Harkin said of Mr. Lieberman yesterday, “He does not speak for the party.”
Mr. Bush obviously hopes that Mr. Lieberman and other centrists do speak for the Democrats. The president yesterday praised Mr. Lieberman’s education bill, which he co-sponsored with Sen. Evan Bayh, Indiana Democrat.
“It’s a great place to begin,” Mr. Bush said at the White House.
Mr. Bush has been meeting each day this week with Democrats at the White House, from liberal icon Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts yesterday to the Democratic leaders of the House and Senate today.
“All of us are impatient with the old lines of division,” Mr. Bush said at an event in the East Room. “All of us want a different attitude here in the nation’s capital. All in this room, as well as across the country, know things must change.”
Said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer, “He’s going to build coalition by coalition as it takes to pass his plans. And so I think you’re going to see an evolving series of Democrats and Republicans who are willing to work with him to enact legislation.”
Even Mr. Kennedy, who has led the fight against Attorney General-designee John Ashcroft, seemed to be warming to Mr. Bush’s education proposal.
“There are some areas of difference, but the overwhelming areas of agreement and support are very, very powerful,” said Mr. Kennedy.
Sen. Tim Hutchinson, Arkansas Republican, said Mr. Bush “is finding support in some unexpected places.”
“That’s a great tribute to his style,” said Mr. Hutchinson.
Added Sen. Don Nickles, Oklahoma Republican: “He’s going to have more meetings with the Democrats in a week or two than Republicans had with Clinton in a year.”
It was clear yesterday that Mr. Bush also plans to make liberal use of another persuasive weapon Vice President Richard B. Cheney, who visited the Capitol for a luncheon with Republican senators.
“It’s a practice I intend to follow as often as possible,” said Mr. Cheney. “I have a lot of great friends up here.”
And despite predictions that three of Mr. Bush’s Cabinet nominees would face uphill battles for confirmations, opposition has fizzled.
The Senate yesterday, by a vote of 100-0, confirmed Mitch Daniels as director of the White House Office of Management and Budget; Mel Martinez as secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development; and Anthony Principi as Veterans Affairs secretary.
The Senate plans to vote today on the nomination of Wisconsin Gov. Tommy G. Thompson to head the Department of Health and Human Services. Also expected to be confirmed today are Elaine Chao as labor secretary, Norman Y. Mineta as transportation secretary and New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman as head of the Environmental Protection Agency.
A vote on Mr. Ashcroft’s nomination was delayed until next week by Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee, who said they need more time to review his responses to about 350 written questions received Monday. Interior secretary-nominee Gale A. Norton has a committee hearing today.
Democrats and even some Republicans caution that it is still too early to tell whether Mr. Bush’s legislative proposals will gain the necessary support to become law. His education plan, for example, is more of an outline than a detailed program at the moment.
“I don’t think we’re receptive to the specifics,” said Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, Maryland Democrat. “We’re not ready to endorse the specifics. We know [tax cuts and education] are the areas that the American people want us to ponder and legislate. Who doesn’t want tax relief?”
But politicians say a variety of factors, from the slowing economy to Mr. Bush’s style to his unspoken veto power, are persuading some Democrats to look favorably on the new president’s proposals.
Sen. John B. Breaux, Louisiana Democrat, called the Republican president’s veto power “a big impact.”
“We don’t control the House, the Senate or the White House,” said Mr. Breaux. “In order to have a Democratic imprint … you need to get your ideas a part of the [administration’s] package.”
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, New York Democrat, said fellow Democrats are taking a wait-and-see attitude before judging Mr. Bush’s proposals.
“Everyone wants to see what the administration sends down, and where we can be cooperative, we will be; and where we differ on principles, there will be negotiations,” said Mrs. Clinton.
Not all Democrats are eager to work with the new president. A handful of House and Senate liberal Democrats held a news conference yesterday to criticize one of Mr. Bush’s first executive orders, which banned U.S. funding to groups to perform or promote abortion abroad.
“It took him just 24 hours to walk away from women. We will not forget,” said Sen. Barbara Boxer, California Democrat.
She and House Democrats say they will introduce legislation to overturn the order; however, Democrats privately concede the measure would have little chance of passage.
Joseph Curl contributed to this article.