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Senate Democrats welcome Bush appearance at retreat

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Senate Democrats called President Bush's brief visit to their retreat Friday a sincere signal of bipartisanship, though some cautioned that real compromise on key issues won't be easy to achieve.

Moderate Sen. John Breaux of Louisiana, the first Democrat to meet with Bush after his election, called Bush's appearance largely symbolic but encouraging.

"This is the first time that a Republican president has come to a Democratic Senate caucus to talk about his vision of the next four years, and I think there wasn't a lot of substance discussed. It was very symbolic," Breaux said.

A few senators coming out the meeting remarked on how charming, friendly and "low key" Bush was, recognizing and addressing all of them by name, listening intently and answering all of their questions.

Bush even used a nickname when addressing liberal Democrat Paul Wellstone, D-Minnesota.

"I just said hello, and he said 'Pablo,'" Wellstone said. "I like anyone who calls me Pablo, but I think we're going to be in major disagreement on some major issues." Among those, he said, is tax cuts.

"No one should confuse the president coming by and the call for civility, which I think we need, with agreement on the major policy issues," he said. "If the president is going to go forward with a $1.5, $1.7 trillion tax cut, mainly helping people at the very top, where is going to be the money to leave no child behind?"

Sen. Joe Biden, D-Delaware, said Bush "got off to a bad start with the Ashcroft nomination but we'll see what he sends up. If he sends up his huge tax cut and says 'I'm not budging,' this all doesn't mean much."

Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin and the former chair of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, Laura Tyson, spoke to the Democrats about the economy and strategy for combating Bush's tax-cut plan.

That discussion was moderated by Sen. Kent Conrad, D-North Dakota, author of the leading Democratic budget alternative, which would give a $750 billion tax cut.

Senate Democrats have said their retreat is aimed at developing the most effective opposition-party strategy. This is the first time they have controlled neither Congress nor the White House since the Eisenhower administration.

Democratic pollster Mark Mellman, who spoke to Democrats later in the day, told CNN the public wants Democrats to work with Bush and get things done, but the party needs to be clear that the Republicans are in charge and should be held accountable if reforms fall short.

Other speakers included pollster John Zogby, who repeated points he presented to Republican senators last month about lessons from the election; Democratic Leadership Council president Al From, who spoke about how to work as an opposition party; and Daniel Yergin, who spoke about energy and the politics of oil.

Bush will make an appearance at the House Democrats retreat in Pennsylvania on Sunday.

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4:30pm ET, 4/16

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