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Bush Pledges ‘Good Faith’ Budget Talks : Deficit: The President won’t say where he stands on a possible tax increase but promised not to set any preconditions in his summit with Congress.

From Times Wire Services

President Bush brushed off a political firestorm over possible tax increases on Friday by saying, “I can’t be ruffled,” and he refused to reveal what he will put on the table at this week’s budget summit with Congress.

“I’m not going to show you my hand. I haven’t seen a lot of hands being laid down,” Bush said as he embarked on a weekend trip of college commencement speeches.

Democrats have been reluctant to be the first to mention taxes, urging Bush instead to take the lead in offering a formula to cut the growing budget deficit.

The Administration has warned that there would be mandatory spending cuts approaching $100 billion this fall unless Congress and the White House agree on major reductions in the deficit.

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Bush, talking with reporters on Air Force One, refused to provide any clues about his strategy but promised to bargain in good faith with Democrats.

En route to a commencement address at Texas A&I; University --his first of three for the weekend--the President moved quickly to put out a brushfire fueled by distrust and concern over his true intentions in the process.

“There’s no conditions, and that’s the way it is,” Bush said. “That’s the way it’s going to be and that’s the way it must be.”

In Washington, Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) said the budget talks shouldn’t just work toward a broad agreement. He suggested that members dealing with the budget should be given official status as a joint committee that actually shapes a final budget bill for House and Senate action.

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But Lugar said he is not optimistic the planned talks can produce an agreement. “The gaps are so large, and the politics of it are so difficult,” Lugar told reporters.

Bush’s invitation to budget negotiations has raised suspicions among Democrats of an election-year tax trap and sparked fears of election setbacks for Republicans who have made anti-tax pledges a key part of their campaigns.

Bush has not said he would endorse tax increases, but he has muted his no-new-taxes pledge for the budget talks, which begin Tuesday.

The Administration is telling Republicans privately that the “no preconditions” stance offered by the White House does not necessarily mean Bush will accept increased taxes.

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The atmosphere for the talks was clouded when White House chief of staff John Sununu suggested last week that the President would not accept a tax increase regardless of what the Democrats propose.

Bush, asked if Sununu’s remarks reflected his position, said, “I would ask you to reflect my posture, to talk about what I say. . . . So I’d respectfully suggest you take your guidance from me on this one, because that’s the way it is.”

And Bush said Sununu was not in trouble for his remarks. “That’s silly, so stupid. None of these congressmen are in trouble, either,” he said.

“I’m approaching it very openly, and I recognize the controversy swirling around from one statement or another,” he said. “But look, stay on track, steady as she goes, and be open, deal frankly with people and deal in the way I’ve said.”

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Bush said, “Tomorrow there’ll be another tidal wave so keep your snorkel above the water level and do what you think is best.

"(It) goes back to what my mom taught me when I was about 6: ‘Do your best, do your best.’ Well, I’m trying hard. Stay calm.”

Bush said, “I think the President has a certain responsibility to stay cool, make clear to people that he’s dealing in good faith and do my best.

“That’s exactly what I intend to do, and I can’t be ruffled by these things,” Bush said. “I’ve got to be understanding when people come forward and express themselves forcefully on something like this.”

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Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, (D-Tex.), on board the President’s plane, said he was willing to give Bush “the benefit of the doubt.”

“I think it’s back on track,” Bentsen, one of the Senate negotiators, said of the budget talks, “as long as we can keep these fellows in line.”

Otherwise, Bush began the two days of commencement speeches at Texas A&I; with the promise that an American flag will be planted on Mars by the year 2019, although he had no specifics on how to achieve that costly goal.

Bush, who would be 95 years old if he lived to see that promise fulfilled, later traveled to Columbia, S.C., for a fund-raiser for Republican Gov. Carroll A. Campbell Jr.

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