Wednesday, January 26, 2005

President Bush yesterday met with the Congressional Black Caucus at the White House — a day after meeting with black Republicans — to discuss areas of common ground between the caucus’s policy agenda and the administration’s priorities.

“Our agenda is centered around closing disparities between African-Americans and the majority community,” said Rep. Melvin Watt, North Carolina Democrat and caucus chairman.

He said the president was the first person outside the caucus to see the black lawmakers’ agenda for the 109th Congress, but that Mr. Bush gave “very little feedback.”

“He agreed to take our agenda under advisement,” Mr. Watt said.

The caucus agenda outlines specific policies to address disparities in health care, education, economic opportunity, justice, retirement security and foreign policy.

Black Republicans hailed the meeting as a first step to begin a real dialogue on issues facing black Americans.

“I think it is important that the CBC and the president, with all the issues facing African-Americans, find some common ground, especially on issues of Social Security and health care,” said C.J. Jordan, president of the National Black Republican Leadership Council.

The legislative packet that the Congressional Black Caucus presented to Mr. Bush notes a December report in the American Journal of Public Health that says 886,000 more blacks died between 1991 and 2000 than would have died had equal health care been available.

“Blacks even with insurance get disparate treatment compared to whites,” said Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, Maryland Democrat.

Other members said the black community cannot afford major cuts to social programs such as Medicaid.

“The president has said he wants to cut Medicaid funding to the states and I want to let him know that would be disastrous for my state,” Rep. Harold E. Ford Jr., Tennessee Democrat, said before the meeting.

Rep. Bennie Thompson, Mississippi Democrat, said rural access to health care is dwindling in his state.

“The insurance companies do not want to insure doctors in medically underserved areas, and that is a major issue for rural America,” Mr. Thompson said. “And when you tie in blacks in [rural] areas, the disparities go off the charts.”

Mr. Bush said his proposals — from Social Security reform to his education initiatives — will help all Americans, including blacks.

“Civil rights is a good education,” Mr. Bush said yesterday at a White House press conference. “Civil rights is opportunity. Civil rights is homeownership. Civil rights is owning your own business. Civil rights is making sure all aspects of our society are open for everybody.

“We’ve got to shed ourselves of bigotry if we expect to lead by example,” he said. “And I’ll do the very best I can, as the president, to make sure the promise — and I believe in the promise of America — is available for everybody.”

Congressional Black Caucus members made it clear that they oppose the president’s plan to create private accounts within the Social Security system. Mr. Watt said Social Security benefits are the only source of retirement income for 40 percent of blacks, and without them poverty among older blacks would double.

This was the first meeting Mr. Bush has held with the caucus since he entered office in 2001. The president last month met with the outgoing president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Kweisi Mfume, after shunning an invitation to speak to the group at its annual convention last summer.

The caucus will evaluate the president’s commitment to its agenda throughout the year, Mr. Watt said.

“The State of the Union address will be the first test,” he said. “I don’t think anything changed today. What happens after today is more important.”

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