By Kate Alexander
WASHINGTON – Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, D-Baltimore, said the “jury is clearly still out” on President Bush after a Wednesday evening meeting with leaders of the Congressional Black Caucus at the White House.
At a brief news conference after the hour-long meeting, caucus members spoke in measured tones about what they described as loose commitments from Bush to examine election reform and the appointments of two African Americans to federal judgeships.
Cummings said after the meeting in the Cabinet Room of the White House that it is still not clear whether Bush can bridge the gap with the African- American community, after receiving only 9 percent of the black vote in November’s election.
Consensus was apparently established between Bush and the caucus on the issues of education and Africa as a foreign policy priority, which caught a few of the caucus members off-guard, Cummings said.
But tensions rose when the discussion turned to Bush’s nomination of former Missouri Sen. John Ashcroft for attorney general, which the caucus “vehemently” opposes.
November’s contested election also dominated the discussion, said those present. One of the caucus’ goals was “bringing to an end the pain so many are feeling about election.”
Cummings noted that three Florida members of the caucus refused to attend the meeting with Bush because of questions that remain over black votes that may not have been counted during the election.
“President Bush has consistently talked about healing our nation,” Cummings said in a statement released before the meeting. “The CBC (Congressional Black Caucus) agrees that in order for this nation to move forward that healing must take place.
“Hopefully, our input today will assist the president in formulating a plan which will leave no one behind,” he said.
Cummings, the newly elected first vice chairman of the caucus, requested a meeting with the president in December, shortly after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of Bush in the dispute over contested ballots. When the White House failed to respond by mid-January, some caucus members grumbled about the delay but also expressed their support for Bush’s bipartisan efforts.
Such a wait-and-see attitude is critical for the caucus to position itself with the new administration, said Allan J. Lichtman, an American University history professor and presidential scholar. It is important for caucus members to “keep their powder dry and fire it off when they need to,” he said.
To bolster his call for bipartisanship, Bush has had several meetings with Democratic legislators since his inauguration on Jan. 20, one of which included Rep. Benjamin Cardin, D-Baltimore.