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President makes overture to skeptical black lawmakers


WASHINGTON - President Bush tried last night to ease into a better relationship with the Congressional Black Caucus, a group still bitter about his election victory and convinced that African-American voters were disenfranchised.

The hour-and-a-half meeting, which spilled 45 minutes past its scheduled end, was part of Bush's effort to mold personal relationships with Congress members from both parties. But so far, other Democrats who have come to meet with Bush have not harbored the same resentment as yesterday's White House guests.

"He made a commitment that he was going to be president of all the people," Eddie Bernice Johnson, a Texas Democrat who chairs the caucus, said after the meeting. "And we had to point out how much anger and anguish is still present. The president, he took it very seriously."

Bush's spokesman, Ari Fleischer, said the president "really appreciated the opportunity to listen" and "is hopeful a community of people that doesn't know him is going to get to know him."

Fleischer said the president was confronted with nearly 20 issues, many of them grievances, raised by caucus members. Among them was a plea for electoral reform. Fleischer quoted Bush as saying: "If there are areas where people were discriminated against, we need to change that. This is America. Everyone deserves the right to vote."

Since the extended legal battle over the contested election in Florida ended, caucus members have not hidden their displeasure with the outcome. And they have accused Bush of ignoring their concerns by nominating as his attorney general John Ashcroft, who has opposed affirmative action and abortion rights and led the fight to deny a federal judgeship to an African-American.

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, a Texas Democrat, said that last night "can be seen as a wait-and-see meeting." She said the group made clear to Bush "that we are absolutely opposed to [school] vouchers and absolutely opposed to Ashcroft. We made that clear."

Some caucus members said the session exceeded their expectations. "The president agreed to work with us on election reform," said Rep. John Conyers Jr., a Michigan Democrat. "It was more successful than I anticipated."

Caucus members and Bush aides described the meeting as cordial but business-like, with moments of levity, but rarely straying from issues. For example, the caucus asked Bush to consider appointing Ronnie White, the black Missouri Supreme Court judge whose nomination to the federal bench was blocked by Ashcroft.

Fleischer said the president made no commitment. But Bush did promise to work to ensure that his Justice Department, which is all but certain to be led by Ashcroft, upholds all civil rights laws.

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat and caucus vice chairman, said before yesterday's meeting that "one of the worst things he could do was nominate Ashcroft. After the election, there was still a fire. Nominating Ashcroft was like throwing a gallon of gasoline on it."

Cummings said the caucus wants Bush to demonstrate that he is committed to reforming the voting process nationwide to avoid a repeat of the chaotic election that brought him to office.

"There are many of our constituents who feel that Mr. Bush - President Bush - did not win the electoral vote or the popular vote," Cummings said. "They're that upset. So the caucus has to walk a tightrope.

"On one hand, we have to work with the president to do everything we can to uplift Americans and make their lives better. But at the same time, we've got to stand up for the things our constituents sent us here for. And those constituents believe strongly that a more moderate voice actually won the day on Election Day."

Many in the caucus maintain that in Florida and elsewhere, black votes were undercounted because outdated voting machines were more prevalent in African-American districts. They also have complained that some blacks were intimidated when they went to vote.

On Jan. 6, a dozen caucus members tried to block the official counting of Florida's 25 electoral votes in the U.S. Senate chamber.

Several members also boycotted portions of Bush's inauguration Jan. 20.

Bush, who received 9 percent of the African-American vote in November, appeared to be reaching out to blacks in his first 11 days in office. He had lunch with Washington Mayor Anthony A. Williams, who is black, and he offered up an education initiative and federal funding for faith-based charities - both would benefit poor neighborhoods, many of which are predominantly black.

But caucus members stressed yesterday that electoral reform trumped any other issue and was their priority. Earlier yesterday, Fleischer said the president would be "open-minded" in trying to improve the election process.

In one sign of progress, a privately funded, bipartisan commission to study election reform was created yesterday at the University of Virginia. Former Presidents Gerald R. Ford and Jimmy Carter will serve as honorary co-chairmen.

Cummings, speaking after yesterday's meeting, said the caucus was heartened by general commitments made by Bush but waiting to see if they were genuine. "It was a good meeting," he said. "But we are clear that the jury is still out."

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