By TOM RAUM
AUSTIN, Texas – President-elect at long last, George W. Bush labored on his transition to power today as Democratic leaders of Congress professed their willingness to work across party lines.
“Bipartisanship isn’t an option any more,” said Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle. “It’s a requirement.”
Sen. Joseph Lieberman, Gore’s running mate, resumed his duties in the Senate and delivered a concession-style speech of his own. Bush and Vice President-elect Dick Cheney “are in my prayers,” said the Connecticut Democrat, who made history as the country’s first Jewish candidate for national office.
Bush was in Austin, where he attended church services on the morning after Al Gore officially ended the nation’s overtime election with a nationally televised concession speech. The Texas governor “decided that he wants to start this on a message of prayer and healing,” said aide Karen Hughes.
“I was not elected to serve one party. But to serve one nation,” Bush said Wednesday night in his first speech to the nation as president-elect. He will take office on Jan. 20 as the nation’s 43rd chief executive.
The Texas governor sat alongside his wife Laura in the first pew of the Tarrytown United Methodist Church at the special service. Country and western music star Larry Gatlin sang a song he wrote for the occasion, with the refrain, “Come let us reason together, and heal the hurt deep inside. Let us reach out our hand to our brother, and heal the great divide.”
The theme of reconciliation was also sounded by the Rev. Kirbyjon H.Caldwell, a Methodist minister from Houston, who prayed to God to “fill this country with your power, your purpose and your peace … and grant the president-elect with all the wisdom he might need for a moment like this.”
Rev. Mark Craig, pastor of the Dallas Methodist church where Vice President-elect Cheney has worshipped, compared Bush to Moses of the Old Testament. “You were chosen by God, as was Moses, to lead the people,” he said.
Afterwards, Bush spokesman Dan Bartlett said that Craig’s assertion that Bush was “chosen by God” for leadership was “the minister’s own reflections” and not a view that Bush would express.
Bush was expected to meet with Secret Service officials later today to discuss his protection, hold a series of meetings with advisers in his campaign headquarters, and take calls from foreign leaders, aides said.
In Washington, officials arranged a formal ceremony to open the doors of a government-run transition office to the Bush transition team headed by Cheney. It was the type of event that routinely would have occurred the day after the election. But nothing was routine in this year’s election, one of the closest in history – certainly the longest – and left in doubt until Gore’s unprecedented court challenge to Bush’s 537-vote victory in Florida was settled on a 5-4 ruling of the Supreme Court.
That left Bush the president-elect, but with the nation split, as Democrats from Daschle to Lieberman to House Democratic Leader Dick Gephardt all observed.
Daschle told a news conference that while there are questions about the election “for which we may never have answer,” there is no doubt the country wants progress on the issues that Gore and Lieberman campaigned on.
He listed education, protecting Social Security and Medicare, and adding a prescription drug benefit to Medicare, passing legislation to rein in HMOs and “using our prosperity wisely and responsibly.”
Daschle and Gephardt said they had placed a call to Bush and hoped to speak with him later in the day.
Bush is expected to make his first visit to Washington as president-elect early next week.
He received calls late Wednesday night from Clinton, traveling in England, as well as British Prime Minister Tony Blair.
Clinton complimented Bush for the “generosity” of his remarks and urged the nation to “follow Vice President Gore’s lead” and unify behind Bush and his new administration.
Blair, Clinton’s host and friend, spoke with Bush by phone and offered “solid support, our unwavering friendship, now and in the future.”
Healing was the theme from Austin to Washington – echoed by Clinton during his visit to Britain – as Republicans and Democrats struck a more conciliatory tone after five weeks of hard feelings and often blistering rhetoric.
“Whether you voted for me or not, I will do my best to serve your interests, and I will work to earn your respect,” Bush said in his muted, nationally televised victory speech Wednesday night, which followed Gore’s concession. “I will give it my all,” Bush said.
He asked Democrats in Congress to work with him on education, Social Security, Medicare and tax relief – all contentious campaign issues. “We have discussed our differences,” he said. “Now it is time to find common ground.”
Clinton, who was up past 3 a.m. watching the concession and acceptance speeches from Blair’s country retreat, invited Bush to the White House during a four-minute phone call.
Clinton “will see him some time next week,” White House spokesman Jake Siewert said. As well, Bush and Gore are to meet Tuesday in Washington.
“I pledged to President-elect Bush my efforts and the best efforts of every member of our administration for a smooth and successful transition,” Clinton said. The president also spoke with Gore.
Bush, in turn, told the president he “looked forward to working with the senator,” a reference to Sen.-elect Hillary Rodham Clinton, according to Gordon Johndroe, a Bush spokesman.
Bush emerged the victor after an epic postelection battle that held the nation in suspense and bitterly divided it along partisan lines.
“I was not elected to serve one party, but to serve one nation,” Bush said. “Our nation must rise above a house divided. Americans share hopes and goals and values far more important than any political disagreements.”
Bush used as his setting the Texas House of Representatives, a chamber controlled by Democrats, underscoring his reputation for bipartisanship.
“The spirit of cooperation I have seen in this hall is what is needed in Washington,” Bush said. “After a difficult election, we must put politics behind us and work together to make the promise of America available for every one of our citizens.”
The president-elect received what he said was “a gracious call” from Gore shortly before the vice president delivered his own speech. Bush said the two “agreed to do our best to heal our country after this hard-fought contest.”
The House Democratic whip, Rep. David Bonior of Michigan, joined some other Democrats in praising the tone of Bush’s speech. But he said today that Bush must address the voting problems that gave rise to the disputed Florida election if he wants the country to rally behind him.
“He has to dig a little deeper, I think, and understand the deep, bitter feelings some people still have with respect to the electoral problems that we have in this country,” Bonior said on NBC’s “Today” show. “I think he needs to do that soon.”
The victory of Bush, 54, sends the second father-son combination to the White House in American history, following John and John Quincy Adams in the early 1800s.
Bush’s father, former President George Bush, was defeated in his re-election bid in 1992 by Democrat Bill Clinton and running mate Gore.
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