WASHINGTON -- President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair said yesterday that they were close to an agreement on how to cancel all debt for the world's poorest countries, with Blair saying that a common proposal might be worked out as soon as this weekend.
But the two leaders appeared as divided as ever on increasing aid to Africa and reviving international action on global warming, two issues on which Blair has staked his reputation as the host of this year's G-8 summit.
Bush and Blair deny intelligence had been altered to justify invasion of Iraq. A15
At a White House news conference yesterday, Blair was unsmiling and appeared subdued as Bush devoted much of his time talking about what the United States is already doing to help Africa, rather than addressing Blair's ambitious proposal to double the $25 billion in international aid to the troubled continent.
Bush also criticized ''big talkers" who speak of doing more for Africa, but who have not given as much as the United States, which has dramatically increased aid to Africa since 2000, and now gives roughly twice as much as any other donor.
''We've got a lot of big talkers," Bush said. ''What I like to say is my administration actually does what we say we're going to do, and we have."
Blair, whose party recently paid dearly in lost parliamentary seats for his support of the US-led war in Iraq, had hoped to win back liberal support in Britain by getting Bush to support the two initiatives.
The G-8 summit of industrialized nations will be held in Scotland in July, the same month Blair also takes over the rotating presidency of the European Union.
''Clearly, Blair was rebuffed on foreign aid and climate change," said Nile Gardiner, a fellow at the Heritage Foundation. ''Blair's advisers were fully aware that Bush would say no, but Blair can return to Britain saying he gave it his best shot."
Advocates for Africa and the environment had been optimistic that Bush would show some appreciation to Blair, given his dogged support for the US-led war in Iraq, which was widely unpopular in Europe.
''It seems to me that at some point the president has to acknowledge all that Tony Blair has done as a friend to the United States," an aide to Republican Senator Olympia Snowe of Maine said before the meeting. Snowe has worked with Stephen Byers, a former British Cabinet minister and a confidant of Blair's, to try to develop a plan to tackle global warming that Bush would support.
Yesterday, both leaders expressed support for their common project in Iraq and dismissed the significance of a leaked 2002 memo from a top British intelligence official that stated that the United States had ''fixed" intelligence to justify a decision to invade Iraq.
The memo said that the White House was determined to go to war on the basis of weapons of mass destruction, despite the fact that the case was ''thin."
''There's nothing farther from the truth," Bush said in his first public remarks on the so-called Downing Street memo. ''Both of us didn't want to use our military. It was our last option."
Blair, who has been under fire since the memo was published on May 1 by the Sunday Times, also denied that the memo accurately represented the truth. ''The facts were not being fixed in any shape or form at all," Blair said.
The White House meeting, the first since both men won reelection, had all the trappings expected of a meeting between leaders who call each other ''closest allies": an intimate dinner, a private meal for their wives, and a wide-ranging discussion on Iraq, Afghanistan, terrorism, and nonproliferation.
But it underscored deep differences that are likely to remain throughout Bush's second term.
Yesterday, Bush announced the release of $674 million in hunger assistance to the Horn of Africa, but those funds -- which had already been appropriated by Congress -- fell short of the billions in new aid for Africa that Blair is seeking.
''Nobody wants to give money to a country that's corrupt, where leaders take money and put it in their pocket," Bush told reporters as Blair stood soberly. ''No developed nation is going to want to support a government that doesn't take an interest in their people, that doesn't focus on education and health care."
The Bush administration has already increased aid to Africa in the last four years, from $1.6 billion to $3.2 billion according to State Department figures, with most of the rise going in food aid to Sudan and Ethiopia, as well as HIV funding.
US aid is expected to continue to rise by several billion dollars, with promised funding in the fight against HIV as well as funding from the Millennium Challenge Corp., a program that gives aid to African countries displaying good governance.
Steven Radelet, senior fellow at the Center for Global Development, said the administration should be commended for increasing assistance to Africa, but that the United States can still afford to do far more.
Bush and Blair appeared furthest apart on the subject of global warming. Blair has said tackling the problem is as important as fighting terrorism, while Bush has expressed skepticism that climate change is caused by humans, and has said efforts to fight it will hurt the US economy.
Snowe's aide had said before the meeting that Blair expressed an interest in convening a G-8 group that would include rapidly growing China and India, to try to find common ground on ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
But there was little talk of such a concrete measure yesterday. Bush called climate change a ''serious long-term issue," and supported the sharing of cleaner technologies, including nuclear power plants, but said more research was needed.
''We want to know more about it," he said.