LAS VEGAS -- President Bush has agreed to meet for the first time with officials from the nation's cities to discuss his domestic policy, which they say is unresponsive to their needs.

Speaking by live teleconference Friday to the opening session of the Congress of Cities meeting here, the President accepted a challenge to meet early next year with city leaders to hear their ideas on how his administration and Congress can better work with local government.

"I do not intend to neglect our cities, nor do I intend to burden them with Washington's version of help," he said during a 15-minute exchange with 4,000 city officials. "We want to free you to do what you do best."

While pleased with the President's promise to meet with them in the final year of his first term, city leaders were cautions about whether they could influence domestic policy.

Mayor Sidney Barthelemy of New Orleans, the departing president of the National League of Cities, criticized the President as spending too much time on foreign problems. He said the 1992 elections should focus attention on domestic needs, including those of cities.

"My hope is that we can get the President and the Congress to begin to address the problems affecting our cities and towns," he told reporters. "We at least feel the meeting we can get in the future will be productive."

The message he expects cities to deliver: The federal government should invest in infrastructure and give federal dollars directly to cities.

"He doesn't understand that when they send all that money to the states, it's not getting to the local level," he said.

Mr. Barthelemy said city officials will continue to push in Congress for a local partnership act that would make money directly available to cities. However, he denied such a program would resurrect federal revenue sharing phased out nearly a decade ago.

The old program gave federal monies to every city, he said, while the draft plan would provide funding to cities with actual needs such as drugs or the homeless.

During the exchange with the President, an Atlanta official urged that federal crime and anti-drug program funds be sent directly to cities and towns -- and not given to the states in the form of block grants.

But Mr. Bush bristled at a suggestion that his administration was not doing enough, saying that anti-crime funding rose 80% during his first term to $11.7 billion a year. Of that, he said, $3 billion goes to state and local governments.

Mayor William Hudnut of Indianapolis, a Republican, told the President. "We believe in the idea of direct assistance to cities." He also urged President Bush to meet with local officials to hear their concerns, a challenge he accepted.

In a speech, Mr. Barthelemy criticized the government as neglecting local issues and challenged the President to spend more time on problems at home.

"There is more concern in Washington for a Russian agenda than for a domestic agenda," he said, adding later, "When our cities and towns are stronger, our nation will be strong forever."

In his remarks, Mr. Bush made it clear that his administration would not focus on local problems at the expense of foreign affairs. "I'm not going to forsake those responsibilities, but I am going to do what is necessary to stay in touch with you," he said.

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