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Bush Meets New Congressional Leaders;  Focus Turns to Domestic Issues - 2003-01-08

President Bush has held his first formal meeting with the new congressional leadership. It began on a positive note with a bill-signing ceremony.

On the second day the legislative session, Congress completed work on an important bill to help the unemployed. President Bush wasted no time signing the measure into law.

"Right now, it is my honor to sign this piece of legislation, which should bring some comfort to those of our fellow citizens who need extra help during the time in which they try to find a job," said Mr. Bush.

He put his pen to paper just a few hours after the legislature gave its final approval to the bill which will keep benefit checks coming to more than 2.5 million jobless Americans.

Supporters of the legislation say they are victims of a weak economy who have exhausted their state emergency assistance and deserve help from the federal government. The president agreed, praising efforts by Republicans and Democrats to pass the measure in time to keep the checks coming for another five months.

"I signed this, and I intend to sign a lot of other bills this year. And I know the only reason I'll be able to do so is because we're going to work together," he said. "We owe that to the American people. It's the spirit that now prevails in this room. And I look forward to working with members of both parties to get a lot done to make America a safer place, a stronger place and a better place."

Unsaid was the fact that far more controversial legislation lies ahead. In the coming weeks, the House and Senate will take up the president's economic stimulus plan, which includes $670 billion in tax cuts.

Democrats have said the plan is skewed to help the rich. As she emerged from the White House, California Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, the new top Democrat in the House of Representatives said the parties want to work together. But she noted there are differences on key issues.

"We're grateful to the president for having us here so we can tell him what our priorities are, aspire to bipartisanship but understand our differences," she said.

The first White House meeting of the new legislative year focused primarily on domestic matters. But Mrs. Pelosi told reporters she brought up the dispute over North Korea's nuclear program. She said she advised the president to urge China to put more pressure on Pyongyang.