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Bush reaches out to key figures as Senate returns

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From John King
CNN Senior White House Correspondent

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- President Bush plans to reach out to three major players in the Senate this week as part of an effort to show a commitment to bipartisanship and to calm recent turmoil within the Republican Party, sources said Monday.

Sen. Tom Daschle, D-South Dakota, who is slated to become the Senate majority leader this week, has accepted an invitation to have dinner with the president Thursday at the White House. Earlier that day, the president also plans to meet with Sen. Lincoln Chafee, R-Rhode Island, who was sharply critical of the president's tax-cut plan.

Chafee is among several Republican moderates who have complained of being shut out or kept at a distance by the Bush White House.

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The scheduling guarantees an intriguing Thursday. Bush also is scheduled to sign into law the 11-year, $1.35 trillion tax cut plan -- Daschle and Chafee are among the plan's most vocal critics.

Tuesday, Bush planned to have dinner with his former GOP primary rival, Arizona Sen. John McCain. The dinner had been scheduled for the same day Vermont Sen. James Jeffords announced he was leaving the GOP to become an independent, and was postponed by mutual agreement.

McCain and Bush spoke on Saturday, hours before Daschle visited McCain at the senator's Arizona home.

The call was orchestrated by political advisers to both men, after a Washington Post report suggested McCain was talking to advisers about running for president as an independent in 2004.

McCain issued a statement in which he said he had not spoken to anyone about running for president, and had no intention of leaving the Republican Party. But the timing was awkward because of the planned Daschle meeting.

A McCain adviser who has good relations with the White House arranged for Bush to call the senator Saturday morning so McCain could tell the president directly that he had no plans to run for president or to leave the GOP. Senior advisers to both the president and the senator then spoke after the Bush-McCain call "to make sure everything was fine," as one person familiar with the conversations said.

Bush is also likely to call a bipartisan group of lawmakers to the White House this week to discuss education issues, including the elementary and secondary education plan pending in Congress. A senior administration official said Bush considered it important to "show the right tone" as the Senate changes hands this week. The official insisted, however, that while the White House sales pitch might have to be retooled somewhat, the president's agenda would not change.

"He didn't run expecting a 50-50 Senate or a 50-49-1 Senate. His agenda is his agenda," the official said. "But having said that, we also are well aware the environment has changed, and we need to do our part to make sure things get off on the right track."







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