House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said yesterday that President George W. Bush did not consult her before announcing his new strategy for the war in Iraq — a sign that, despite the cozy rhetoric, the relationship between Washington's two powerhouses has already had its share of friction.
In an interview, Pelosi also said she was puzzled by what she considered the president's minimalist explanation for his confidence in the new surge of 21,500 U.S. troops that he has presented as the crux of a new "way forward" for U.S. forces in Iraq.
"He's tried this two times — it's failed twice," the California Democrat said. "I asked him at the White House, 'Mr. President, why do you think this time it's going to work?' And he said, 'Because I told them it had to.' "
Asked if the president had elaborated, she added that he simply said, " 'I told them that they had to.' That was the end of it. That's the way it is."
She also said during the interview in her spacious Capitol suite that no one else in the White House had asked her what she would do, or what the administration should do about Iraq.
The speaker did praise the president for his gracious salute to her at the beginning of his State of the Union address Tuesday night that prompted two standing ovations. And she said she takes the president at his word when he says he wants to reach across the aisle.
The new Congress may pass some version of his energy and immigration proposals, if Bush can round up enough Republican support, Pelosi suggested. But she rejected the proposal for a tax deduction for health insurance that was a centerpiece of his speech.
In all, she left no doubt that Democrats who now run the House and Senate intend to control the agenda. And, on domestic policy, Pelosi — not Bush — is now arguably the nation's most powerful force.
In Bush's speech on Iraq more than two weeks ago, he said he had "consulted members of Congress from both parties," as well as overseas allies and distinguished outside experts. And the president and his top aides had a swirl of meetings with lawmakers from both parties. But Pelosi said she was not satisfied, particularly recalling a White House meeting the afternoon of the speech.
"He brought us in to tell us what he was going to say in a matter of hours," she said. "It wasn't a consultation — it was a notification. And a late-minute one at that."
Pelosi made it clear the issue was the essential backdrop in Washington for the foreseeable future, however much Bush wants to talk about domestic issues. "We have an 800-pound gorilla in the room and it's called Iraq," she said. "That, to me, is the primary issue facing the Congress and the president in terms of some place that we have to work together."
But she added, "I don't see any signal that the president is ready to listen. Nonetheless I pray — and I use the word very, very specifically — pray that he will go to another place on Iraq."
Describing the president's plan as "add Americans," the speaker said: "Whatever it is, if he's going to go ahead with it, I hope it succeeds, of course. This is the third time."
If it does not, she asked, "What would he do then? Would that send a message to him that perhaps these people have to be left to their own security?"
A senior administration official disagreed with Pelosi's comments, noting that she and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., had sent a letter the previous Friday opposing the surge. "By the time we met with her on Wednesday, we knew for sure where she stood," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Despite seemingly unbridgeable differences with Democrats on Iraq, Bush hopes to use domestic issues to fight for relevancy at a low point in his presidency by seeking a series of compromises.
He telegraphed his strategy in the State of the Union address, with his emphasis on providing health care coverage to the uninsured and liberalizing the nation's immigration laws.
Tax cuts are gone as a rhetorical centerpiece and, instead, his aides hoped the headline out of the speech would be sort of a Nixon-to-China idea for the former Texas oilman: The most specific plan for reducing gasoline use that he has ever proposed. But officials said he will stick to his broadest principles, including resistance to tax increases.
"He's going to seek compromise in areas where he can," said a top presidential adviser who spoke on condition of anonymity so he could speak candidly. "You create relevance in politics by appearing to be relevant. If Democrats are engaging with him on a series of issues, that gives him leverage."
In the interview, Pelosi said she was eager to take Bush up on his outreach to the new Democratic majority.
"My confidence in his willingness to work in a bipartisan way springs from his word — he said it," Pelosi explained. "We have enough areas of agreement that we can move forward and that we have to move forward."
For instance, she cited what she calls her "innovation agenda" of measures designed to improve technology at U.S. businesses.
"Let's build confidence where we can without there being any ideology involved, and then take it to what we can do on energy independence," she said. "Let's find our common ground. Maybe we can do something on immigration if the president really wants to take the lead because he's going to have to lead his party there, and I think he knows that."
Still, the speaker said she is uncertain that the White House will always sound quite as accommodating.
"They have to do what they have to do," she said. "They have to appeal to their base, appeal to their party."
And she declared, "I have to do what I have to do.''
John Bresnahan and Carrie Budoff contributed to this report.
By Josephine Hearn and Mike Allen
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