WASHINGTON —President Bush met anew with Black leaders on Thursday, promising Black farmers, business owners and college presidents that he will use his time in the White House to ``speak for the values that unite our country.''
Bush promoted his education reform package, budget proposal and tax cut plan before about 120 people in the White House's East Room. The president said Attorney General John Ashcroft is ``following through'' on his order to develop a plan to end racial profiling. He also noted that he wants to increase funds for historically Black colleges by $1.4 billion over five years.
``Many of our finest citizens have been educated at those places of higher learning,'' Bush said. ``I hope Congress doesn't blink. I hope they join us in this important mission.''
Accompanying Bush on stage were Education Secretary Rod Paige and Rep. J.C. Watts, R-Okla., the lone Black Republican in Congress. Notably missing were the members of the Congressional Black Caucus, all of them Democrats.
One Democrat who did attend was former District of Columbia Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly. She said she was ``favorably impressed'' with Bush's education plan and that the Black community should at least hear what Bush has to offer.
``He's here, so let's see what he delivers,'' Kelly said.
Bush has reached out to Blacks since taking office in January in an effort to heal the rift left by last year's election. Black voters supported Bush's Democratic opponent Al Gore by a 9-1 margin, and there is lingering resentment over the Florida recount that gave Bush the victory.
When the result was certified in the House, most Black caucus members walked out in protest. Bush, who has had one meeting with caucus members, alluded to the strain.
``It's so important that we have mutual respect in the nation's capital,'' he said. ``Not everybody's going to agree with every detail, but we're getting things done. ... I will constantly speak for the values that unite our country: personal responsibility, equal justice, equal opportunity for everybody.''
Last week, Bush invited a group of Black ministers to discuss his plan to give federal funds to church-based programs. Some of the clergy later said they were impressed with Bush and that the religion-based program, if successful, could help Bush win more support among Blacks in the 2004 presidential race.
The White House announced Thursday that the former White House office devoted to racial issues will become a working group of nine staff members responsible for recommendations on race-related policies. The chairman is Bush's assistant for Cabinet affairs, Albert Hawkins. The group's first meeting is expected by early June.
Among those invited Thursday were notable Republicans such as Colorado Lt. Gov. Joe Rogers, Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell and Watts, chairman of the House Republican Conference.
Not attending were caucus members, Kweisi Mfume, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and other prominent Blacks.
The White House denied that the lack of face-to-face meetings between Bush and high-profile Black leaders was tantamount to a snub. ``He's reaching out to African-American leaders across the political spectrum,'' said White House spokesman Scott McClellan.
Responded Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas, who heads the Black caucus: ``It's kind of difficult to overlook the members of Congress as leaders in this country. We are very aware of the discounting of our input.''
NAACP spokesman John White said Mfume has not requested a meeting with Bush, but hopes to meet soon with the president, House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss.
``In due time, he will meet with the president,'' White said. ``He's not upset about it.''