President Hugo Chavez called for conciliation between Venezuela's political rivals Saturday and told recently elected lawmakers he was willing to sharply reduce the period of time he has to enact laws by decree.
Chavez shook hands and chatted with opposition leaders before launching into his annual state-of-the-nation speech inside the National Assembly, then he offered to relinquish legislation allowing him to bypass the congress for 18 months.
Chavez said he was willing to accept a five-month decree period instead.
"I'll return the enabling law to you" for amending, he said.
The president's uncharacteristic conciliatory tone may have been aimed at defusing criticism of the decree powers, which opponents call an undemocratic power grab. The secretary-general of the Organization of American States has also criticized the measure.
Members of the president's ruling party have a strong majority in the National Assembly, although opponents gained ground in September congressional elections, winning 67 of the assembly's 165 seats. Their new numbers will keep Chavez allies from obtaining the two-thirds majority needed to pass some types of legislation.
Chavez — a close ally of Cuba's Castro brothers — clearly aimed to appear conciliatory, but he said that he does not intend to slow his drive toward socialism.
"Don't think that Chavez is taking steps backward," he said. "Chavez is moving forward."
Chavez has come under increased criticism since a government-friendly, lame-duck congress granted him the decree power in December.
Critics called the action a blow to Venezuela's democracy and accused Chavez of using the law to sidestep congressional controls by lawmakers who were sworn in earlier this month.
Supporters counter that Chavez needs decree powers to swiftly approve disaster-relief measures after severe floods and mudslides that left thousands homeless last year.
But the law also permits Chavez to issue decrees affecting the banking system, rural and urban land-reform initiatives, and Venezuela's economic system.