President Bush yesterday moved aggressively to resurrect his plan to relax rules against illegal immigration, a move bound to anger conservatives just days after they helped re-elect him.
The president met privately in the Oval Office with Sen. John McCain to discuss jump-starting a stalled White House initiative that would grant legal status to millions of immigrants who broke the law to enter the United States.
The Arizona Republican is one of the Senate's most outspoken supporters of expanding guest-worker programs and has introduced his own bill to offer a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants.
"We are formulating plans for the legislative agenda for next year," said White House political strategist Karl Rove. "And immigration will be on that agenda."
He added: "The president had a meeting this morning to discuss with a significant member of the Senate the prospect of immigration reform. And he's going to make it an important item."
While the president was huddling with Mr. McCain, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell was pushing the plan during a visit to Mexico City.
"The president remains committed to comprehensive immigration reform as a high priority in his second term," he told a meeting of the U.S.-Mexico Binational Commission. "We will work closely with our Congress to achieve this goal."
But key opponents in Congress said Mr. Bush's proposal isn't going anywhere.
"An amnesty by any other name is still an amnesty, regardless of what the White House wants to call it," said Rep. Tom Tancredo, Colorado Republican and chairman of the Congressional Immigration Reform Caucus.
"Their amnesty plan was dead on arrival when they sent it to the Congress in January, and if they send the same pig with lipstick back to Congress next January, it will suffer the same fate," he said.
With the House and Senate already clashing over border security and deportation provisions in the pending intelligence overhaul bill, some Capitol Hill aides said it's almost impossible that Congress could agree on a broader immigration proposal.
Dan Stein, president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), said he "suddenly went from calm to stressed out" after learning of the president's renewed push for immigration relaxation.
He predicted the plan would continue to meet vigorous opposition from House Republicans.
"If the House wouldn't deliver this bill before the guy's election, when he claimed he needed it for the Hispanic vote, why would they deliver it after the election, when their constituents overwhelmingly oppose it?" he said. "Why would House leaders follow the president over a cliff?"
White House officials insisted the move was not "payback" to Hispanic voters who supported Mr. Bush in greater numbers last week than in 2000. Although the president first proposed relaxing immigration shortly after taking office, he mothballed the idea after September 11, 2001, and downplayed it on the campaign trail.
"The president has long believed that reforming our immigration system is a high priority," White House deputy press secretary Claire Buchan said yesterday.
Mr. Stein said Mr. Bush is already a "lame duck president" whose proposal "has no credibility." He expressed astonishment that the president resurrected the plan before pushing other second-term agenda items, like tax simplification or Social Security privatization.
"There's a sense of obstinacy in the face of overwhelming evidence that it's a losing approach," he said. "I mean, the definition of insanity is to keep doing the same thing, expecting a different result."
Though most members of Congress agree on the need for a guest-worker program to fill unwanted jobs, House Republican leaders, including Majority Leader Tom DeLay, Texas Republican, have panned other parts of the president's proposal as an amnesty.
Mr. Bush has not sent immigration legislation to Congress, though seven bills have been introduced by members of the House and Senate, according to Numbers USA, an organization that lobbies for stricter immigration controls.
They range from a proposal to give legal status to fewer than 1 million agricultural workers to a bill that could legalize most of the estimated 10 million illegal immigrants currently living in the United States. But none of the bills has passed even one chamber.
Mr. McCain is sponsoring a bill, along with Reps. Jim Kolbe and Jeff Flake, both Arizona Republicans, that would go further than the president's principles by explicitly allowing those now here illegally to enter a guest-worker program and eventually apply for permanent residence.
White House press secretary Scott McClellan said the president wants to "provide a more humane treatment" of illegal aliens from Mexico.
"America has always been a welcoming society, and this is a program that will match willing workers with willing employers," he said. "It will promote compassion for workers who right now have no protection."
He added of Mr. Bush: "It's something that he intends to work with members on to get moving again in the second term. It's something he believes very strongly in."
Mr. Powell yesterday insisted that security is an important part of his boss's proposal.
"We must also be innovative in our efforts to stop those who abuse the openness of our societies along the border, who would use this openness to harm our citizens through trafficking in drugs, or trafficking in human beings, or by committing acts of terrorism," Mr. Powell said.
Some on Capitol Hill said Mr. Bush may be emboldened by the fact that he didn't appear to lose support among conservatives in this year's election, and several Republicans who did support guest-worker programs defeated primary challengers, including Mr. Flake, Mr. Kolbe and Rep. Christopher B. Cannon, Utah Republican.
"I think a lot of members around the country saw those results and realized that voters are more interested in a serious solution to this problem," said Mr. Flake's spokesman, Matthew Specht. "So I think that certainly improves the chances for reform next year."
In a 90-minute interview Sept. 22 with editors and reporters of The Washington Times, Mr. Rove said a Bush victory would "be an opportunity" for the president's guest-worker proposal for immigrants, although he declined to call it a "mandate," as he did on such issues as Social Security reform and tax cuts.
Stephen Dinan contributed to this report.