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Democrats sense in Cheney shift on missile defense

By CNN Capitol Hill Producer Dana Bash

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Several Senate Democrats said Thursday the Bush administration is shifting on the issue of missile defense after hearing Vice President Dick Cheney at a caucus luncheon.

Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin, D-Michigan, said Cheney's remarks confirmed Levin's suspicions that the administration is changing its "hard-line" calls to abrogate the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty in order to build a national missile defense system.

Democrats have been critical of the Bush administration for wanting to do away with the ABM treaty in order to advance a missile defense system that has not yet been proven effective.

"During the campaign it was a 'treaty be damned,' approach, but now it's a much more cautionary approach," Levin said.

Levin said Cheney's remarks to senators are "a little more qualified," saying the Bush administration now wants to wait for more research and development on the missile defense system before entering discussions with the Russians to modify the ABM treaty.

The Michigan Democrat said he told Cheney he "welcomed the change in emphasis" but noted Cheney did not admit to a change in stance or rhetoric on the issue.

Mary Matalin, a counselor to the vice president, said there was no change in position.

"We're in a post Cold War and he (Bush) wants to establish a different framework for protecting the peace, he wants to have protection with our allies against rogue missile attacks," Matalin said. "The vice president repeated that position. There wasn't any news made or any positions changed."

Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Connecticut, and Sen. Charles Schumer, D-New York, both came out of the lunch telling reporters they, too, sensed a shift from the administration.

Levin did not think it was a result of President Bush's trip to Europe where leaders criticized his policy.

"I felt a change in emphasis was coming even before that," said Levin.

It was the first time Cheney had attended the Democratic Caucus luncheon.

Many who were there called the meeting "cordial" and said it produced "no sparks."

Although most Democratic senators leaving the hour-long meeting said the discussion over issues of defense, energy and AIDS relief produced little information, some said they were pleasantly surprised by Cheney's comments on missile defense.

All the luncheon participants seemed eager to publicize the event -- coming before the cameras with warm remarks but taking no reporter questions and even allowing cameras to take rare pictures inside the lunch.

Cheney, who was invited to attend by Chairman of the Democratic Policy Committee Chairman Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-North Dakota, noted that 17 of the senators attending the lunch served with him in the House of Representatives. Cheney said it was a "good opportunity for dialogue."

"I'm glad to be here, I think it's a good practice and I really do appreciate the invitation," the vice president said.

Dorgan said it was a good opportunity for the vice president and Senate Democrats to talk with each other, instead of talking "at each other through the press."

"This is a split government. The president won by a whisker, the Senate is now 50-49-1, the House is almost evenly split," Dorgan explained. "The way to get things done is to work together and get to know each other a little better and I thought it was a really good gathering."

Before the meeting started, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-South Dakota, warned it was not going to produce any big breakthroughs.

"We don't have any expectations for any general agreements or necessarily anything other than a good opportunity to exchange views and share ideas," Daschle said.

Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, was a bit more cynical about the meeting, calling it "mush."

"There was a lot of verbiage that doesn't upset anyone," said Harkin.

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