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Bush opens doors, ears to Congress


WASHINGTON --Sen. John W. Warner and his wife were at the White House for a Memorial Day photo session with veterans when they received an unexpected invitation from President Bush. "Come on," the president said suddenly. "Let's go back to the Oval Office."

What followed, said Warner, a Virginia Republican and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, was a rare 15 minutes alone with the president, no aides or staff in sight. Bush escorted the couple to a private garden and solicited the senator's views on Iraq. "It was a nice way of doing things," Warner said.

It was also a new way of doing things for a president who Republicans in Congress say has for years treated them like pesky younger siblings, ignoring their ideas and calling on them only to promote his legislation.

Now, with Bush's poll numbers sinking and his agenda faltering, the White House needs Republicans in Congress more than ever. Without necessarily taking the advice he is seeking from Capitol Hill, Bush is adding a more personal touch to his presidency in an effort to put himself in the good graces of lawmakers.

The effort, suggested by senior advisers to Bush, began late last year and intensified in April after Joshua B. Bolten became chief of staff, said two officials involved. So the president, a man not given to Washington schmoozing, now holds intimate cocktail parties on the Truman Balcony, overlooking the South Lawn, for lawmakers and their spouses, complete with tours of the Lincoln Bedroom led by him and the first lady.

For the first time in his presidency, Bush is also inviting lawmakers to the White House in small groups not to discuss specific issues but to ask what is on their minds. These informal sessions occur not in the Oval Office but over iced tea and lemonade in the cozy Yellow Oval Room of the private residence.

White House officials say Bush has supported their plan to expand his social schedule, particularly with the informal settings he is most comfortable in. "He definitely understood the importance of having good relations and improving upon it," one of the senior officials said.

But it is hard to find evidence that Bush's new open-ear policy has led to a substantive change in direction by the White House.

The administration has also stumbled frequently in its intensified efforts to reach out to Congress, raising questions about how much it has accomplished in mollifying Republican lawmakers, some of whom are heading into re-election campaigns concerned that Bush could be a political liability.

The depth of the strain was evident last week when Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, complained publicly that Vice President Dick Cheney, the administration's primary liaison to members of Congress, had meddled in committee business behind Specter's back.

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