President George W. Bush told anxious Republicans in the House of Representatives on Friday that their party was “ready to lead again” and called for action on an election-year agenda that he hopes will help their chances in the mid-term elections.

Speaking on the second day of a three-day retreat for lawmakers in rural Maryland, Mr Bush thanked House leaders for their work and urged them to press forward with the priorities he set out last week in his State of the Union address, including healthcare, education and energy independence.

“We don’t fear the future, because we’re going to shape the future of the United States of America,” he said.

House Republicans said they were using their retreat to craft an agenda of their own and to regroup after a tumultuous change in leadership and a lobbying scandal that threatens to ensnare several members of Congress.

John Boehner, elected majority leader last week, called the retreat “a time for renewal and rebuilding”. Members of Congress heard briefings on the 2006 campaign outlook and the federal budget, as well as a refresher course in House ethics rules. Mr Boehner said the course was given “so that they know what the rules are”.

Ken Mehlman, chairman of the Republican National Committee, said that ethics reform was critical. “The public believes that the country needs to continue reforming things if we are going to be on the right track,” he said, previewing his closed-door remarks to lawmakers.

Opinion polls show broad discontent with the Republican-controlled Congress, though Republicans publicly insist they will maintain their majority in November’s mid-term elections. “It’s a challenge I believe we can handle,” Mr Mehlman said.

Privately, however, senior Republicans are talking to colleagues – more than half of whom were elected since 1994, when their party took control of the House – about what it was like when they were in the minority.

“Sometimes we have to remind members,” said Tom Reynolds, chairman of the House Republicans’ campaign arm. “We have a majority and we have to work hard to protect it.”

The most difficult discussions are expected on Saturday, with sessions on lobbying reform and earmarks, the process lawmakers use to insert spending on fav­oured proj­ects into legislation. Some members have said an end to earmarks would help curtail the influence of lobbyists.

But Mr Reynolds, from upstate New York, acknowledged tension between the push to eliminate earmarks and the desire to bring money home. “The Buffalo News . . . still believes that I ought to be bringing home the bacon.”

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