Democrats call for cooperation between adversaries

January 28, 2008 8:28:40 PM PST
Democrats in the midst of their own roiling presidential nomination fight followed President Bush's State of the Union address not so much with a response as with their own theme of bipartisan cooperation.

Their messenger Monday night was Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, a red-state Democrat touted by congressional leaders as a symbol of bipartisanship.

"In this time, normally reserved for the partisan response, I hope to offer you something more: an American response," Sebelius said from the governor's mansion in Topeka. "There is a chance, Mr. President, in the next 357 days, to get real results and give the American people renewed optimism that their challenges are the top priority."

Her remarks followed criticism last week by Democratic congressional leaders that was plenty partisan. They demanded that Bush accomplish a string of Democratic objectives that he was unlikely to consider in the last year of his administration.

In a softer tone than the Democrats' last week, Sebelius invited Bush to take a series of legislative actions Democrats want, such as signing a bill he's vetoed twice to expand federal health care coverage from 6 million to 10 million children.

"Join us, Mr. President, sign the bill and let's get to work," she said.

Democrats aren't holding their breath for a presidential change of heart, and that was just the point.

The Democrats were aiming more for drawing distinctions with Bush than creating consensus in an election year with the presidency and their majorities at stake.

But the divide between the Democrats' own presidential candidates were hard to miss for its bitterness. After weeks of sniping, rivals Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama arrived in the same House chamber for the same annual speech and sat in the same row.

The chances of good coming from the proximity were scant. Indeed, photos captured a split-second snub: Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, who hours earlier had endorsed Obama over Clinton, reached out to shake her hand when she came near. Obama, who was sitting between them, had turned away.

A doorkeeper, caught between it all, cringes in the photo that captures the moment.

It was pretty dramatic stuff compared to the going-away speech of a lame-duck president and the Democrats' follow-up.

In many ways, it was Obama's day. Sebelius also had endorsed Obama. She didn't mention it, but she included a line that echoed President Kennedy's inaugural address in 1961.

Kennedy said then, "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country."

In Topeka Monday night, Sebelius said: "We are tired of leaders who, rather than asking what we can do for our country, ask nothing of us at all."

On policy, Sebelius made reference to the short-term stimulus package House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Bush announced last week, suggesting that "a temporary fix is only the first step toward meeting our challenges and solving our problems." The package of tax cuts still must be approved by the Senate.

"If more Republicans in Congress stand with us this year, we won't have to wait for a new president to restore America's role in the world and fight a more effective war on terror," Sebelius said.

Other Democrats were celebrating one thing they agree on: the end of Bush's presidency.

"Tonight is a red-letter night in American history. It is the last time George Bush will give the State of the Union. Next year it will be a Democratic president giving it," predicted Clinton, drawing cheers during a campaign stop in Connecticut before attending Bush's speech.

On the Republican side, Sen. John McCain, skipped the speech to campaign in Florida.

In the hours leading up to the joint session of Congress, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid popped the bubble of bipartisanship even as he introduced Sebelius to reporters during a conference call. Discussing legislation to renew Bush's secretive domestic surveillance program, he suggested that Bush was trying to scare the nation into supporting permissive rules on domestic eavesdropping.

"The only thing the president does well is frighten the American people," he said.


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