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Bush, Congress regroup. President-elect will need help from both parties on Capitol Hill

With less than two months to go before Inauguration Day, George Bush is moving methodically to set the stage for a solid and quick launch of his presidency. Building bridges to Congress is a key element of his political strategy. In addition to making more Cabinet appointments, he has concentrated this week on establishing early ties with Republican congressional and Senate lawmakers, including Senate minority leader Bob Dole, his former rival. He also wants to get together with the new Democratic leadership.

The overtures are not just a matter of personal friendliness. A good working relationship with Republican as well as Democratic leaders will be absolutely crucial to achieving breakthroughs on the budget deficit and other difficult issues. Richard Darman, who will be Mr. Bush's budget director, attended the President-elect's breakfast meeting with seven GOP Senate leaders yesterday, indicating that the deficit problem looms high on the Bush agenda.

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Democratic members of Congress, for their part, are skeptically waiting for Bush to show his hand, especially on the coming budget.

``No one has gotten any feeling yet that Bush has any sense of the fiscal problems out there,'' says Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D) of Colorado. ``He's not giving answers on the budget during the transition that show he has a grip on it. So Democrats will be as worried as are the Republicans - and the markets and international investors.''

Although President-elect Bush has yet to articulate his domestic and foreign policy agenda, so far he appears to be impressing the Washington community.

Leading a transition is not the same as leading a country. But observers say that Bush already gives some indication of what his style of leadership will be:

He will be more immersed in day-to-day details and fine-tuning policymaking than was President Reagan, who set the broad decisions and left them to aides to carry out. Bush will be more interested in seeing and studying all the options.

He is likely to be more accessible to the press, more informed about issues and policies, more comfortable answering questions from the news media.

He will not tolerate a perception that he is not in charge but is being influenced by those around him. He quickly snuffed out speculation that James Baker III, his close confidant and future secretary of state, would be a virtual ``prime minister'' in the Bush administration.

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He will not be a government-basher, but will use his myriad associations throughout the bureaucracy and in Congress to promote his agenda.

Political analysts see a more self-confident and buoyant George Bush these days, striving to establish his independence and outmaneuvering his own aides in the timing of announcements, including that of national security adviser Brent Scowcroft and White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater. The selection of Gov. John Sununu to be White House chief of staff, despite the qualms of some high aides, is viewed as evidence of Bush's assertiveness and his desire to present something new.

Bush aides are pleased with the pace of the transition and the President-elect's growing confidence.

``It shows he's in charge,'' says David Demarest, director of public affairs on the transition team. ``He's obviously comfortable and confident. He's enjoying himself. He's being deliberate, but with certain sparks of spontaneity.''

In a certain sense, there is not much of a ``transition,'' because so many of the appointments are carryovers from this administration, including Attorney General Dick Thornburgh and Education Secretary Lauro Cavazos, or individuals who worked for Ronald Reagan, such as Mr. Darman. Bush clearly is comfortable picking people from the close circle around him.

This may show a certain lack of creativity in appointments, analysts say, but Bush will have an easier job governing by choosing Cabinet officers he knows and bringing in newer people at lower levels.

For all the positive, genial atmospherics of the transition, however, there is no underestimating the political difficulties that await Mr. Bush. It is one thing to nourish his ties on Capitol Hill during this transition period, but once in office he will have to deal with the harsh political realities that Republican needs in Congress with respect to the budget, child care, and other matters are not in step with his own. GOP lawmakers already have their eye on the next election.

``They are looking ahead to the likelihood of significant losses in 1990,'' says Norman Ornstein, a specialist on the Congress at the American Enterprise Institute. ``So they don't want to go out having sustained vetoes on child care and the like. They want to resolve the deficit problem, because they will suffer if the economy has difficulties in 1990.''

Democratic lawmakers, in turn, are still smarting over the campaign and Bush's ``read-my-lips'' stance on taxes. They are giving notice that it is the new President and not they who will have to take the political heat for any tax increases.

``Overtures to Congress are important now, and Bush has to make them,'' comments Thomas Mann, a political analyst at the Brookings Institution. ``But in themselves they cannot overcome the need for substantive concessions. He's walking a tight line between his conservative base and the moderates he has to work with on the Hill.''

Kevin Phillips, a conservative analyst, says that Bush will be even more beholden to the conservative right than was Mr. Reagan, because the President had a wider conservative reach. Bush held the white fundamentalist vote in the election, but there was a marked attrition among farmers, ethnic groups, and others who backed Reagan, he says.

``The Republican presidential coalition now is extremely dependent on the religious right, because the rest has eroded on the fringes,'' Mr. Phillips comments. This, he suggests, will make it even more difficult to deal with the moderate Republicans in Congress, who disagree with Bush's views on everything from economic policy to abortion.


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