Bush takes his victory lap

The New York Times and The Associated Press

WASHINGTON — As the Electoral College sealed his presidency, President-elect George W. Bush courted Republican and Democratic leaders in the Capitol on Monday and pledged to salve "whatever wounds may exist" from the election.

Yet he also emphasized that he planned to push for his full campaign agenda, including a broad tax cut, and would use "head knocking" and "gentle arm-twisting" to prevail.

Bush’s triumphant sweep through Washington took place as members of the Electoral College met in state capitals across the nation. By early evening, when the counting was done in each state’s capitals, Bush had the 271 votes he had expected. Gore had 266, one less than he had expected, because a District of Columbia elector left her ballot blank to protest Washington’s lack of a voting representative in Congress. The electoral votes will be officially counted in a joint session of Congress on Jan. 5.

After five weeks of seesawing uncertainty that did not end until Dec. 12, Florida cast its pivotal 25 votes for Bush.

"It was like, finally, we did it," Mel Martinez, a Florida elector, said in Tallahassee.

Although hundreds of votes in Florida separated the fates of Bush and Al Gore, more than 105 million Americans cast ballots in the presidential election.

Bush lost the nation’s popular vote to Gore by 539,897 votes, according to a final vote tally compiled by a nonpartisan research group from state reports. Slightly more than half of 1 percent of the overall vote count separated them.

Across a whirlwind day, Bush had breakfast with the Federal Reserve chairman, Alan Greenspan, met lawmakers, paid a visit on President Jacques Chirac of France and interviewed candidates for his Cabinet.

Republicans said that former Sen. Dan Coats of Indiana was all but certain to be named defense secretary; that Paul O’Neill, chairman of Alcoa, was a strong contender for Treasury secretary; and that Ann Veneman, former California agriculture director, was one prospect for secretary of agriculture.

Gov. Christie Whitman of New Jersey was seen midday entering the Washington hotel that is serving as Bush’s Washington headquarters. Republicans said she could be a candidate for administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.

While the president-elect’s victory tour of Washington is a ceremonial tradition, this one was marked by strange political and historical crosscurrents. Bush’s father, after all, put some of the blame for his defeat in 1992 on Greenspan, believing the Fed had not acted aggressively enough to end the recession that helped Bill Clinton defeat him.

And when Laura Bush and Hillary Rodham Clinton shared tea on Monday morning, Clinton was not just a first lady but a senator-elect whose name is already being bandied about as a possible presidential candidate in 2004.

While Greenspan prefers tax cuts to increases in government spending, he has long argued that the best choice is to use federal surpluses to reduce the national debt. But until a few months ago, the Fed’s main concern about the economy was that it was too strong.

Now the situation is very different. And there were no signs of strain on Monday between the incoming president and the Fed chairman who has become a revered Washington institution. The Fed is expected Ttoday to signal that it is ready to cut interest rates next year to ward off a recession.

"I talked with a good man here," Bush said, placing his hand on Greenspan’s shoulder as he escorted him out of his hotel on Monday morning. "We had a very strong discussion about my confidence in his abilities."

Perhaps the day’s most striking scene came on Capitol Hill in the Rayburn room named after another powerful Texan, the legendary former House speaker, Sam Rayburn. Before a battery of television cameras, Bush appeared with the congressional leaders who will have a major say in determining his success in these divided political times.

To Bush’s right stood the Republicans, House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois, and Sen. Trent Lott, the majority leader from Mississippi. To his left stood the Democrats, Rep. Dick Gephardt, the minority leader from Missouri, and Sen. Tom Daschle, the minority leader from South Dakota. Bush had met with the Republicans before, but he made a point on Monday of spending time with each of the two Democrats.

But for all the good will, the difficulties facing Bush and the divided Congress were also apparent.

The two Democrats stood stone-faced as Bush insisted he would move forward with his plan for $1.3 trillion in tax cuts over 10 years and said the slowing economy made it essential to do so. He said he would make the case that "marginal rate reductions will help spur economic activity and economic growth."

"There’s going to be a lot of discussions, a lot of head-knocking, kind of gentle arm-twisting," Bush said. "I’m sure they’ll be twisting my arm and I might try to twist a few myself to reach what’s right for America."

Gephardt, perhaps sent Bush a message about how far the Democrats are willing to bend when he said, "We will be there coming 50 percent of the way, sometimes even further, to the middle to get things done for the people that sent us here and hired us."

Republicans said that when Bush met with a larger group of the House Republican leadership earlier in the morning, there was discussion of how to sell the tax plan, including whether to pass it piece by piece.

Bush, a former oil man, also talked extensively with lawmakers about his desire for an aggressive energy policy to increase U.S. production and make the nation less dependent on foreign oil.

"I’m not going to allow the working people of this country to suffer," Bush told congressional leaders, according to his spokesman, Ari Fleischer. During the campaign the governor proposed, among other steps, opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska to more exploration.

Gephardt said later in an interview, "I think it’s possible to get to some compromise on this, but you can’t forget the environmental side of it."

Before returning to Texas today, Bush will visit President Clinton, whom he so often implicitly ran against, and his defeated opponent, Vice President Al Gore. The last time Bush and Gore encountered each other in person was in their testy third presidential debate in October.

Copyright ©2000 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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