President Bush visited with Senate Republicans behind closed doors yesterday, promising that he will follow through on border security, pleading with them to give his immigration plans a second look and trying to overcome hard feelings that arose from his recent charge that opponents are guilty of trying to “frighten people.”
“We’ve got to convince the American people that this bill is the best way to enforce our border,” Mr. Bush said after an hourlong lunch with the senators. “I believe without the bill that it’s going to be harder to enforce the border.”
The bill is stalled for now, the victim of a collapse last week, and Democrats say Mr. Bush must prove that he can deliver 20 votes in support of the bill before they will put it back on the schedule. Mr. Bush is struggling to win those votes and has come under fire from Republicans who say he must first do more to prove he is serious about enforcement.
One idea that seemed to gain immediate traction among the Republicans was for Mr. Bush to send up a new emergency-spending bill to fund border security.
“If we’re really going to get support for this bill from the American people there’s got to be some restoration of trust,” said Sen. Saxby Chambliss, Georgia Republican, who sent a letter with fellow Georgia Republican Johnny Isakson proposing the spending bill. “There’s got to be some effort shown on the part of the administration before I think there’s going to be a sufficient number of folks deciding to move this bill forward.”
No cost estimate has been proposed for the emergency spending bill, though Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican, had a $3.9 billion amendment last year to fund all of the authorized immigration enforcement.
It drew the praise of Republicans involved in the “grand bargain” — the group of senators that wrote the immigration bill behind closed doors.
“The president said I’m willing to find something that will build confidence, and so I think that is something that may come as a new outcome as a result of this conversation,” said Sen. Mel Martinez, Florida Republican.
The White House, though open to the idea, was noncommittal.
“There were some ideas that were raised during the meeting, and the president and members of his administration will consider them,” said Scott Stanzel, a White House spokesman.
In addition to Mr. Chambliss and Mr. Isakson, a group of senators yesterday sent a letter challenging the Bush administration to pledge to enforce immigration laws regardless of whether the bill passes.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said in a reply letter that his department “has always vigorously enforced the law, and will continue to do so,” but added that to stop illegal immigration, he needs new tools contained in the bill, particularly for employer verification, to help with enforcement.
“Give me the tools to do it,” he told reporters on a conference call. “Don’t ask us to go out and use half the tools, or a quarter of the tools, to do the job.”
Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, said the burden is on the Republicans to prove that they can deliver the votes to pass the bill, and he rejected the back-and-forth talk over numbers of amendments.
“I did that once. I’m not dancing that tune again,” he said. “It is up to the Republicans. I have agreed to go forward on this if they give me a way to move forward on it.’