President Bush yesterday said he plans to spend political capital this year to force a debate in Congress on his immigration-reform proposal, and boldly predicted that he will prevail.
"I believe the president has got to set big agenda items and solve big problems," the president told editors and reporters of The Washington Times in an interview in the Oval Office. "Obviously, we're going to have to work on it, just like Social Security. This will require the expenditure of capital."
Asked whether he will move forward this year with his immigration-reform plan which critics say amounts to amnesty for an estimated 8 million illegal aliens in the United States Mr. Bush said: "Yes. Yes, I will." And asked where his proposal ranks in a second-term agenda already overflowing with big-ticket issues from reforming Social Security to overhauling the U.S. tax code, he said: "I think it's high. I think it's a big issue."
"Look, whether or not you agree with the solution or not, we have a problem in America when you've got 8 million undocumented workers here," said Mr. Bush, leaning forward in his armchair and putting his elbows on his knees. "A solution is not instantaneous citizenship. The solution is something more rational than that."
The president expressed confidence that he can persuade reticent members of Congress to move on his immigration bill, recounting how he has succeeded on issues that faced staunch opposition in the past.
"Remember the tax debate? It seems like history tends to repeat itself," Mr. Bush said, leaning back in his chair. "In '01, it was like, you'll never get the taxes done. No chance. And initially out of the box, some people said, over my dead body would they pass tax relief."
In his first year in office, the House and the Senate passed the second largest tax-cut in history, despite the initial opposition.
"If I listened to all that, I'd just quit, you know. But that's not the way I think."
The president, whose second term begins in just eight days, was relaxed and confident throughout the 40-minute session. At times he grew animated, gesturing to make a point, as he laid out an expansive agenda in a brief opening statement before taking questions.
"You're probably sitting there saying, has the guy bit off more than he can chew? The answer is, we will work as hard as we can to get as much as we can get done, as quickly as possible," Mr. Bush said.
In the interview, the president laid out an ambitious agenda, saying he would:
Push his judicial nominees through Congress, saying he is "confident that we'll prevail in the long run."
Fully fund troops in Iraq and elsewhere while keeping discretionary spending to a minimum, although he wouldn't predict the percentage of spending increase this fiscal year.
Spend more political capital to revamp the Social Security system that will go "broke, flat-bust" around 2040.
The president faces one of his toughest battles over immigration. Many Republicans openly said before the November election that they were holding their tongues for the campaign, with Hispanics expected to be a pivotal voting bloc. But they since have become far more vocal in their opposition.
Mr. Bush's plan, which he proposed about a year ago, would grant temporary work visas to foreign workers as long as U.S. workers cannot or do not want to fill the job.
Critics of the plan have argued that this will only encourage more people to sneak across the border illegally to obtain work. During the six-month period after the president's announcement, apprehensions of illegal aliens crossing the border jumped 25 percent over the previous year.
Although Mr. Bush is confident he will persuade critics, House Republicans are moving in the opposite direction from the president's proposal, toward stronger efforts to keep illegals out of the United States.
One senior House Republican this month called for an improved Social Security card to prevent illegal immigrants from gaining jobs and for quintupling the penalty for those who employ them.
Members of his conservative base have resisted the president's plan, arguing that it amounts to an amnesty for those who are currently breaking the law and that terrorists could exploit the rules.
Mr. Bush insisted his plan is not an amnesty.
"This is not a citizenship," he said yesterday. "I strongly oppose instant citizenship. I think all that would do is cause the problem to occur again. I believe that if they want to be a citizen, they need to get in line like the other people have done. And if Congress is worried about logjams for certain countries becoming citizens, they need to change that part of the law."
But he said that the current situation is a "bureaucratic nightmare" that must be solved.
"We've got people living in the shadows of our society, and we've got a border patrol that's overstressed because we've got people streaming across," Mr. Bush said. "The system has broken down. And I think by legalizing work, we take a lot of pressure off our borders."
The president vowed to fight for his judicial nominees to the federal bench, and decried the Democrats' use of the filibuster, which he said "makes arm-twisting very difficult, because it only requires a handful of people to stop the process."
Mr. Bush noted that he has "the ability to keep sending names up there and willingness to show that I'm a person who sticks to my guns, and I pick people who I believe are the right people to serve on the bench" and also the power of "the bully pulpit, which I use and like using, frankly."
He added that he thinks Republican leaders "need to review the rules of the Senate to make sure people at least are able to at some point in time, in a reasonable period of time, get an up-or-down vote."
The president said his "enthusiasm is high for the job," but he's ready to face the criticism that comes with being the occupant of the Oval Office even looking forward to it.
"This office is the kind of place where you sit here, people stand out there, and they say, 'I'm going to tell him what-for,' and they walk in here and they get just overwhelmed by the Oval Office and the whole atmosphere and the great beauty of this place, and they say, 'Man, you're looking good, Mr. President,'" he said to laughter. "So I need people walking in here saying, 'You're not looking so good.' "