Bush team, Dem Hill leaders still eager to work together

That doesn't mean conflict won't boil up over issues like Iraq and the budget.

Though they increasingly unload vitriolic rhetoric on each other, Democratic congressional leaders and the White House are in closer contact than ever and remain quietly determined to work together, according to aides at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.

The surprising spirit of cooperation does not preclude acrimonious conflict ahead over issues like the budget and Iraq. But it does mean that both sides, recognizing that presidential politics will increasingly intrude on their ability to get anything done next year, continue to view each other as vital for achieving things Democrats can take to voters and President Bush can use to buff his legacy.

Sources portray a clinical detachment by top officials on both sides over divisive matters like the reauthorization of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and the performance of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, whom the White House said Democrats were trying to destroy.

One White House official compared the relationship with Democrats to Wall Street, where emotion eventually subsides and decisions are made on economic fundamentals. "There's nothing unusual about conflict" in Washington, the official said. Progress "won't be based on how Congress and the White House are getting along; it will be based on the substance of the legislation."

Brendan Daly, a spokesman for Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., agreed: "At the end of the day, it will come down to issues, not personalities."

Sources outlined examples of below-the-radar cooperation. One senior administration official pointed appreciatively to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's willingness to take up the nomination of former Rep. Jim Nussle, R-Iowa, to be Office of Management and Budget director first thing in September.

A House Democratic aide noted the removal of labor provisions objectionable to the White House from legislation implementing recommendations of the 9/11 commission and agreement on legislation promoting scientific research and science and math education.

According to a senior Senate Democratic aide, the White House is consulting more on Iraq and other issues. Reid is able to quickly get White House Chief of Staff Joshua Bolten and others on the phone when he wants. "Candi's fantastic," the source said about White House legislative affairs chief Candida Wolff.

Moreover, Bush, Reid, and Pelosi, all veteran politicians who have clawed their way to the summit of power, have unexpectedly good personal chemistry, aides say. Semi-regular meetings at the White House tend to be very cordial.

"Sen. Reid likes the president as a person, but there are some serious disagreements with him on policy," said Reid spokesman Jim Manley. Each understands it is their business to say tough things about the other but not take it personally -- even the prickly president.

A week ago Tuesday, as the session was winding down amid fierce skirmishing on several fronts, Bush, Pelosi and their spouses sat down to a quiet dinner at the White House.