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Bush presses GOP on immigration bill

  Immigration  -   POSTED: 2007/06/13 17:20

President Bush, once able to easily corral GOP lawmakers to get what he wanted on Capitol Hill, found himself in an unusual role yesterday: scrounging for votes from members of his own party. Accompanied by Vice President Dick Cheney, the president made a rare visit to the US Capitol, hoping to persuade skeptical Republicans to resurrect an immigration overhaul package that many in his party have criticized as an "amnesty" bill for illegal immigrants.

Bush was warmly received at a luncheon meeting -- his first with Senate Republicans in five years, senators said -- and tried to address conservatives' concerns that the bill is weak on border security.

"Some members in there believe that we need to move a comprehensive bill. Some don't," Bush told reporters at the Capitol. "I understand that. It's a highly emotional issue."

Nevertheless, he added, "the status quo is not acceptable."

The measure -- crafted during weeks of tense negotiations by the White House and senators in both parties but scuttled on a procedural vote last week -- would give legal status to the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants now living in the United States and create a "guest worker" program allowing foreigners to work here in two-year stints.

Border security would be strengthened through a sizable increase in the number of Border Patrol officers, and employers who hire undocumented workers would face tougher penalties.

Supporters, including Bush, see the bill as the best chance for overhauling immigration until well after the 2008 elections. Newly empowered Democrats are largely behind the president on the issue, but he has been thwarted by Republicans concerned that the measure would not do enough to tighten the nation's borders while rewarding those who broke the law to enter the country.

Senators in both parties, meanwhile, said they were increasingly confident they could restart the stalled measure, and worked yesterday to craft an agreement to schedule a vote.

For most of his presidency, with the GOP controlling both chambers of Congress, Bush barely had to ask to get his way on domestic and foreign policy bills, relying on a disciplined GOP leadership to grant his wish list of tax cuts, Iraq war funding, and an education overhaul.

Now, Bush is beleaguered by a widely unpopular war that has dragged his favorability ratings to near-record lows, and he is running into trouble from lawmakers in his own party who appear more willing to disappoint their president than vote for a bill that their party's conservative base opposes.

"He needs to back off," said Senator Jeff Sessions , Republican of Alabama and a fierce opponent of the bill, his remarks startling for their lack of deference to a sitting president in the same party. "Frankly, I think this president is wrong to push this piece of legislation so hard after we've demonstrated the flaws that are in it," Sessions said on CNN's "American Morning" yesterday, hours before the luncheon.

But Bush appeared to mollify, if not convert, some senators at the luncheon.

The president, often accused of dominating the conversation when lawmakers in both parties are summoned to the White House to discuss policy, was gracious and open to hearing senators' concerns, according to those who attended the luncheon yesterday.

Instead of using threats or demanding the loyalty the president prizes, Bush used charm, allowing them to vent their objections and answering a few questions.

"He listened," said Senator Jim Bunning , Republican of Kentucky. Senator Bob Corker , a Tennessee Republican, called Bush "graceful and generous" in his demeanor. "It was by no means an arm-twisting session," Corker said, although he said that he had not changed his own opposition to the immigration package.

Several GOP senators asked for more money to build up border security beyond adding Border Patrol officers, but negotiators said they did not know whether they would adopt that recommendation.

Even Sessions, who offered a blunt assessment earlier in the day, said he was impressed with what he called Bush's receptive demeanor. Although Sessions said he still thought the bill was a mistake, he said Bush, scheduled to appear at an upcoming fund-raiser for the Alabama lawmaker, didn't hold it against him.

"He made it clear he is my friend, whether I am with him or not" on the immigration package, Sessions said.

Despite his unpopularity over the war, Bush has been able to summon enough GOP loyalty to win a few key victories on Capitol Hill.

The president secured $100 billion in Iraq war funding, and Republicans largely banded together earlier this week to prevent a "no confidence" vote on Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales , even though many Republicans have criticized the embattled Bush appointee.

But there are also signs that the president's power in his own party is waning. During a debate last week, several GOP presidential candidates took pains to distance themselves from the White House, and before getting the Iraq war-funding bill to his desk, Bush first had to veto a measure that would have imposed a schedule for troop withdrawals from Iraq.

And on immigration, Bush faces a major legislative defeat at the hands of his fellow Republicans, unless he persuades enough senators to change their minds and allow the measure to advance.

Angry Republicans fumed that the bill had been rushed to the Senate floor and that they wanted more time to offer amendments. Democrats, meanwhile, accused the bill's opponents of dragging out debate to kill the measure outright.

Democrats who voted for the measure blame Bush for the impasse, saying the president should have done more to build support, and done it earlier.

"It's unclear whether he has the capital in his party to change votes, to change minds," said Senator Robert Menendez , Democrat of New Jersey.

"It may be nonexistent at this point, but the institutional power of [the presidency] might still carry the day," he said.

Senate majority leader Harry Reid , Democrat of Nevada, said the onus is still on the president to deliver enough votes to advance the bill.

Leaders in both parties contend they have a majority willing to pass the measure, but Senate rules require 60 votes to close debate and hold a final vote on the bill.

"We've done our job" in collecting enough Democratic votes, Reid said. "It's a question of Republicans supporting their own president. We'll move on immigration when they have their own act together."


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