Bush’s clout with GOP in the balance as he pleads for immigration bill
June 11, 2007
WASHINGTON – President Bush is putting his influence within his own party to the test Tuesday as he pleads personally with skeptical Senate Republicans to resurrect his immigration bill.
Despite his confident tone Monday about the measure’s fate, Bush is facing a hostile audience that has shown little appetite for following his lead on the contentious issue.
Bush left no room for the possibility that his bid to legalize up to 12 million unlawful immigrants while tightening border security – among his top domestic priorities – might die. “I’ll see you at the bill signing,” he said while traveling in Bulgaria.
Still, weakened by his sagging poll numbers and a sense within GOP ranks that the president has lost touch with his core supporters on immigration, Bush may well lack the clout he would need to persuade Republicans to back the measure, say lawmakers and strategists.
Republicans overwhelmingly favor enforcing current laws over giving unlawful immigrants a path to citizenship, putting Bush on the wrong side of an issue that unites the party, said GOP pollster Tony Fabrizio.
Bush’s campaign for the broad immigration measure “is certainly not helpful, particularly with the base,” Fabrizio said. “This issue right now is the most glaring one where there is almost unanimity on the other side of (Bush’s) position.”
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The president, who helped shape the bipartisan immigration compromise that collapsed in the Senate last week, returned to Washington on Monday evening and will huddle with Republicans over lunch on Tuesday, aiming to persuade them to give the measure another chance.
The bill exposes deep divisions among both parties, but it was solid GOP opposition that stalled it when all but seven Republicans blocked a Democratic effort to put it on a fast track to passage.
Senate Democratic leaders wrote Bush on Monday saying it was up to him to lean on Republicans to back the measure.
“It will take stronger leadership by you to ensure the opponents of the bill do not block its path forward,” the letter said.
Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said he would be willing to bring immigration back to the Senate floor in coming weeks if he could be assured enough Republicans would support the bill.
Proponents gathered Monday evening to plot strategy for reviving the measure. They are working to agree to a limited list of Republican-sought changes that could be considered before moving ahead with the bill.
“Things have changed,” said Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., an architect of the bill. “We’re going to put Humpty Dumpty back together.”
So far, however, the president’s efforts to give the bill a personal boost – most visibly in his harsh criticism of its opponents in speeches during Congress’ Memorial Day break – appear to have had the opposite effect.
Some Republican supporters of the bill said those remarks – when Bush accused those who dismiss the measure as “amnesty” of trying to frighten the public – cost the president sway among Republicans.
With the measure facing a critical test last week, Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., said Bush should stay out of the debate and instead focus on the annual G-8 meeting of industrialized nations he was attending in Germany. “His comments last week were not helpful,” Lott said.
Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., a leading opponent of the measure, said Bush’s campaign to give new life to the stalled measure ignores widespread antipathy toward it among Republican lawmakers and their constituents.
“It just does not make any sense at this point to try to steamroll something that, clearly, people have not liked the process, (and) they don’t like the bill,” DeMint said. “It’s bad for the country, it’s bad for the Republican Party, and I just don’t think there’s any excuse to continue to push it.”