EVERGLADES NATIONAL PARK, Fla. (AP) _ As an alligator slithered through murky waters behind him, President Bush celebrated Florida's Everglades on Monday and said he hoped the reconfigured Congress would take a lesson from this ``beautiful slice of Heaven.''
The Republican president, who is tending his image as both environmentalist and bipartisan, pledged to state activists gathered canalside that he would not abandon the massive, 40-year ecosystem restoration under way here.
``Our job here is to be good stewards of the Everglades, to restore what has been damaged and to reduce the risk of harm,'' said Bush, whose budget for 2002 proposes $219 million for the Everglades project, a $58-million increase over current funding.
Even as Bush talked of wading birds and panthers freshly trying to make a home here, Washington was clearly on his mind.
He confronts on Tuesday the reality of Sen. Jim Jeffords' defection from the Republican Party: Congress returns from its Memorial Day recess with Democrats poised to take control of the Senate.
With his brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, at his side, the president noted that the Everglades is home to 68 endangered species ``and the only place on earth where crocodiles and alligators live side by side.''
``We're kind of hoping that's the way it gets to be in the United States Congress one of these days,'' he quipped.
When his speech was finished, he said enthusiastically to park rangers, ``There's a gator back here looking for something!''
Bush made the Everglades announcement at the same time a new ABC News-Washington Post poll found that Democrats have a 20-point advantage over him on public trust in handling the environment.
After Jeffords' move and a weekend meeting between GOP Sen. John McCain and Tom Daschle, the Senate's Democratic leader, Bush is redoubling efforts to court Democrats and moderate Republicans.
The president and Daschle planned to have dinner at the White House on Thursday, said a senior White House official and a Daschle aide speaking on condition of anonymity.
White House operatives were also working to arrange get-togethers for Bush this week with McCain and another moderate Republican, Sen. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island.
``The work that needs to be done (by Bush) is not just between Democrats and Republicans but within the Republican caucus,'' said Florida's Sen. Bob Graham, a Democrat, who traveled with Bush deep into the Everglades' sawgrass prairies.
Graham and Bill Nelson, Florida's other Democratic U.S. senator, both applauded Bush for his unequivocal statement of support Monday for Everglades restoration. But Nelson said it didn't quite jibe with Bush's call to open some waters off the Florida coast for oil drilling.
``It's a mentality of drilling our way out of the energy crisis,'' Nelson told reporters, shaking his head.
Jeb Bush also opposes the president's drilling plan. The two brothers planned a private dinner Monday night in Tampa after the president's evening rally there _ dubbed a ``Tax Relief Celebration'' _ heralding the tax cuts that he made the centerpiece of his campaign last year and will sign into law in a White House ceremony on Thursday.
Tax cuts, Bush cried at Tampa's Legends Field, are ``an answer to a prayer such as this one: lead us not into temptation'' to spend the federal budget surplus.
Most of those at the field, the New York Yankees' spring-training home, carried signs provided by the event's Republican organizers. At least three protesters, however, apparently refused to surrender anti-Bush signs to police, were handcuffed and led away.
Some two miles away from where the Bushes staged their Everglades announcement, dozens of demonstrators carried signs with slogans such as ``Bush oil and our water don't mix'' and ``It's the environment, stupid.''
Others were dressed as oil barrels to greet the presidential motorcade.
There also were Bush supporters who brandished signs saying ``Sportsmen for President Bush'' and ``George W. & Jeb, thanx for Everglades restoration.''
Bush named Florida parks director Fran Mainella to head the National Park Service. She currently oversees the administration of 155 state parks covering more than half a million acres.