Domestic Politics Follow Bush Abroad
President Terms Criticism by Democrats 'Petty'
By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
SAN SALVADOR, March 24 -- President Bush accused the Democrats today
of playing "petty politics" during his four-day visit to Latin America,
Democratic Party used its weekly national radio address to accuse him of trying "to curry favor with Latino voters in the United States."
"Sometimes in Washington, D.C., people cannot get rid of old habits,"
Bush said during a joint news conference with President Francisco Flores
of El Salvador. Bush
said his "long-standing interest" in Latin America was well known, noting that his first foreign trip as president was to Mexico, in February last year.
"I guess I'd say I'm disappointed" in the radio remarks Saturday by
Antonio Villaraigosa, who ran unsuccessfully last year for mayor of Los
Angeles, Bush said.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said he was certain the Democratic leadership was behind the remarks that had broken "tradition" by "sounding a partisan
note" while the president was abroad.
Bush spent six hours today in this Central American country, where the
United States played an extensive role in the war against leftist guerrillas
during the 1980s. He
congratulated El Salvador for becoming "one of the freest and strongest and most stable countries in our hemisphere," and pointed to a Central American trade
agreement he proposed in January.
After meeting with Flores, the two were joined by the presidents of
Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama, countries
that want to
participate in the proposed trade accord. The administration has not proposed legislation for the pact, which would decrease or eliminate U.S. import duties on
products from the region.
"When I first got elected, I said the best foreign policy for the United
States is to have a prosperous, peaceful and free neighborhood," Bush said.
"I firmly believe that
the best policy for the United States is to pay attention to our friends."
Bush's trip, which included a two-day stop in Monterrey, Mexico, and
an afternoon and overnight stay in Lima, Peru, was planned to emphasize
administration is paying attention to the region after focusing for months on the war on terrorism and the conflict in the Middle East.
In a speech to a U.N. development conference in Monterrey on Friday,
Bush promised to increase U.S. development assistance by $5 billion a year
through a new
fund targeted at countries that adopt good governance and economic practices. He also held his third round of talks with President Vicente Fox of Mexico.
Although Bush had said he would use his trip to emphasize trade with
Latin America as the best way of stopping terrorism and drug trafficking
and ensuring the
growth of democracy and stability in the region, leaders in the hemisphere have pressed him to make good on his promises.
During a meeting with Bush in Lima, the presidents of Peru, Colombia
and Bolivia, and the vice president of Ecuador, put what Secretary of State
Colin L. Powell
today called "big pressure" on Bush to gain passage of an Andean trade preference agreement that has been stalled in the Senate for months.
Asked whether difficulties with the pact signaled congressional trouble
for a new Central American trade accord, Powell said, "I don't think it
bodes badly for it. I
just think that as we move forward with our other trade agreements, we have to realize that there are some on Capitol Hill that are not favorably disposed toward
these kinds of agreements."
On the subject of immigration, Bush suggested he would support the continuation
of Temporary Protected Status for Salvadorans in the United States, a program
that defers deportation of certain illegal immigrants and is scheduled to expire in September. He also said the administration would "take a look" at a bill before
Congress that would grant other Central Americans the same easy access to U.S. permanent residence now accorded Nicaraguans and Cubans.
But Bush, who flew back to Washington late tonight, again criticized
the Democratic-controlled Senate for failing last week to vote on the extension
of a separate
immigration provision that would allow illegal immigrants who have legal family or a promised job to remain in the United States while their application for legal status
Domestic politics became even more intrusive the closer Bush got to
home. Referring to the Democratic radio address while briefing reporters
aboard Air Force One
this morning, Fleischer said the Democrats had interrupted a trip filled with "hopefulness and unity among the Latin American neighbors and friends" even as they
were blocking pro-Latino legislation on immigration and trade.
In the address, Villaraigosa said the Republicans were "desperately,
but unsuccessfully, seeking Hispanic support" and that it was the administration
that had failed to
support more substantive immigration legislation. "Our community knows the difference between rhetoric and results, between pandering and producing," he said.
The battle for the Hispanic vote is intensely competitive, as Republicans
seek to enlarge their share of support from the nation's fastest-growing
minority group. Bush
has made courting Latinos a top priority, in large part because the party's prospects will dim dramatically if Democrats continue to attract a significant majority of
Fleischer compared Villaraigosa's remarks to what he called an attack
by Senate Majority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) last July as Bush
was leaving for an
economic summit in Italy. By failing to work more aggressively for Middle East peace, pushing for a missile defense system opposed by U.S. allies and opposing an
international agreement on global warming, Daschle said, the administration was "isolating . . . [and] minimizing ourselves."
After the administration complained in public and in private, Daschle
acknowledged that his timing might have been bad but said he stood by the
substance of his
President Bill Clinton frequently received similar treatment from Republicans
when he traveled overseas. During a tour of East Africa in 1998, Republicans
that Clinton's presidential apology for slavery was politically motivated to curry favor with black voters.
Bush did make one lighthearted reference to domestic matters today.
Asked whether he would "reluctantly or wholeheartedly" sign new campaign
given his criticism of the bill, Bush said, "It will be a signature. I won't hesitate. It will probably take about, you know, about three seconds to get to the 'W.' I may
hesitate on the period, and then rip through the 'Bush.' "