When President Bush invited Democratic leaders for a sit-down on Iraq, it seemed to offer the opportunity for a breakthrough in their bitter differences over the war. For about five seconds. Then the White House spent the rest of Tuesday explaining what the meeting would not be.
It is not a chance to compromise, the administration insists. Bush isn't budging from what kind of war-spending bill he can accept.
It is not a time for Bush to lecture lawmakers, the White House said, although he might reiterate why the Democrats' proposals to set troop-withdrawal timelines are foolish and irresponsible.
And whatever you do, don't call it a negotiation.
Bush read the Republicans' loss of Congress last year as a message that voters want both parties to work together. But his move on Tuesday was the latest sign that his tactics remain the same: We'll cooperate just fine as long as you see it my way.
In the latest instance, Bush called congressional leaders of both parties to the White House next week to talk about his war spending request.
"We can discuss the way forward on a bill that is a clean bill, a bill that funds our troops without artificial timetables for withdrawal and without handcuffing our generals on the ground," he said.
In other words, exactly the bill he wants - stripped of the Democrats' deadlines for pulling back.
White House spokeswoman Dana Perino, describing the president's offer, hastened to declare: "I will point out to you, this is not a negotiation."
A reporter said it sounded like an invitation for Democrats to come by and agree with Bush. "Well, hopefully so," Perino said.
Not surprisingly, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi rejected the terms set by Bush.
They said he has to recognize that times have changed since Republicans lost control of the House and Senate in the November elections.
"The president is now having to deal with a Congress," Reid said. "He has never had to do that before. The president in the past, he has just done whatever he wanted. He had a big rubber stamp up here on Capitol Hill."
My way or no way
Bush has cooperated with Democrats on some major issues, such as education. He has given ground to conservatives when he had a losing fight, such as an ill-fated attempt to promote then-White House counsel Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court.
But he is better known for a style of my way or no way. It has held true whether Republicans or Democrats are running Congress.
He brushed aside bipartisan criticism of his government's domestic surveillance of people suspected of links to al-Qaida without court order. He stuck with his Social Security push for private investment accounts, even when Democrats opposed it and bipartisan support was crucial. It went nowhere.
Bush also stood by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, the face of the unpopular management of the Iraq war, long after Democrats in Congress called for him to be sacked.
These days, Bush is willing to let some of his aides be interviewed in a congressional investigation about the firing of eight U.S. attorneys. But his offer - that the sessions will be in private, and without an oath or a transcript - is deemed nonnegotiable.
Congress won't go for that, and Democrats subpoenaed Attorney General Alberto Gonzales for more documents on Tuesday.
Commander in chief
Above all else, Bush stands by his presidential prerogative on matters of war.
He spent weeks listening to outside advice before deciding in January to send more troops to Iraq, betting that a security clampdown will help the young democracy survive. Yet on the day he announced his policy, anti-war Democrats wondered aloud why he had even consulted them.
Down in the polls, an opposition Congress, less than two years left as president - those factors are not guiding Bush's governing. He still considers himself the decider, and he still is the lone commander in chief.
The White House makes a daily point of reminding Democrats that they do not have the votes to override a Bush veto - and that's what they will get if they send him a bill that includes timetables for getting troops home.
It is unclear whether Bush's meeting with Democrats will take place.
The politics of vetos
Presidents typically set up these meetings after a change in party on Capitol Hill, or when they have a deal to discuss, said Paul Light, a New York University professor of public policy,
"They don't occur when one hand is empty and the other hand is holding a veto pen," Light said.
Light said Bush may be working to avoid a veto. Republicans would have to vote to sustain it, which could be spun by Democrats as another vote in favor of the war. Democrats could also gain from attending even a fruitless meeting with Bush, Light said. It gives them a chance to stand in the White House driveway afterward and declare that the president won't give ground.
Then again, Democrats have plenty to lose too. With each day, they risk appearing like they do not support U.S. troops in a combat zone.
"Bush is the commander in chief. He can embarrass the Democrats by putting them on the spot, forcing them to question his leadership directly," Light said. "It's one thing to put a timetable in a bill. It's quite another to talk to the commander in chief face-to-face and say you don't like his leadership. Americans don't like that."