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Bush, Democrats jockey for position

WASHINGTON—As the new Democratic Congress prepared to be sworn in Thursday and elect Nancy Pelosi of California the first female speaker of the House of Representatives, partisan gamesmanship seasoned with hypocrisy threatened to override pledges of a new era of bipartisan cooperation.

House Democrats said Wednesday that they'd break one of their major promises: granting Republicans the kind of full participation in the legislative process that they were denied while Republicans held power the last 12 years.

They now say they need to sideline the Republicans, much as they were set aside, to assure their goal of passing half a dozen top-priority bills within the first 100 hours of legislative business. They'll move the bills straight to the House floor without putting them through committee review, where Republicans could challenge them, and without permitting Republicans to offer amendments or alternatives on the floor.

Republicans held a news conference to complain.

Rep. Adam Putnam, R-Fla., the chairman of the House Republican Conference, said his party's leaders weren't being hypocritical by complaining even though they'd treated Democrats the same way because, after all, the Democrats had campaigned on a promise to do things differently. "The important point here is that the American people were promised a new way of doing business in the United States Congress," he said.

For his part, President Bush, while urging bipartisanship, called for Congress to reform and slash spending "earmarks" for special pork-barrel projects and to balance the budget over the next five years, goals he'd ignored during his first six years in power, when Republicans were in charge of Capitol Hill.

Bush has never vetoed a spending bill, although earmarks exploded on his watch, to 13,012 last year. As for balancing the budget, Bush inherited a $128 billion budget surplus when he took office in 2001, but the government has run mammoth deficits every year since. A recession, economic disruptions from the 2001 terrorist attacks, tax cuts and war spending all have contributed to the imbalance. Deficits shrank the past two years, but remained at almost $250 billion in fiscal 2006.

"It's time to set aside politics and focus on the future," the president said after a Cabinet meeting.

At the Capitol, House Majority Leader-elect Steny Hoyer, D-Md., defended his party's plans to bypass hearings and amendments so as to expedite votes on key legislation that Democrats campaigned on.

The House Democrats' 100-hour agenda includes raising the minimum wage, reducing interest on college loans, seeking lower prescription-drug costs for seniors, enacting the 9-11 commission's national security recommendations, expanding federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research and ending oil-company subsidies.

"We view the first 100 hours essentially as a mandate from the American people," Hoyer explained. "We said to the American people, `If you elect us, if you put us in charge, this is what we're going to do, and we're going to do it in the first 100 hours.'"

After that, Democrats will include Republicans more in the process as they'd promised, Hoyer said.

Republicans scoffed.

"Even the press is laughing when you have that premise that everything is going to be fair after the first 100 hours," said Rep. David Dreier, R-Calif., the top Republican on the House Rules Committee.

"The idea that these are issues that have been around a long time, so they don't need to be debated, they don't need to go through the committee, that doesn't pass any kind of test that makes them exceptional. We'd just like to see them do what they promised," Dreier said.

Some analysts questioned the Democrats' approach.

Alice Rivlin, one of President Clinton's budget directors and a former vice chair of the Federal Reserve, said Democrats were making "a tactical mistake" by shutting out Republicans early on. Over the long term, Rivlin said, "they're not able to pass anything big without cooperation."

Flanked by members of his Cabinet, Bush said he'd present a plan next month to balance the federal budget by 2012, four years after he leaves office.

Rep. John Spratt, D-S.C., the incoming chairman of the House Budget Committee, said he'd withhold judgment on the plan until he could determine whether "the rhetoric matches reality."

Although Bush repeated his desire for bipartisan cooperation, he sought to ensure that Democrats will get the blame for any legislative gridlock.

"If Congress chooses to pass bills that are simply political statements, they will have chosen stalemate," Bush wrote in an opinion article in Wednesday's Wall Street Journal. "If a different approach is taken, the next two years can be fruitful ones for our nation."

Democrats reacted warily.

"We hope that when the president says compromise, it means more than `do it my way,' which is what he's meant in the past," said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y.

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(McClatchy Newspapers correspondent Steven Thomma contributed to this report.)

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(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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