MOBILE, Ala. — Sen. Jeff Sessions has likened the current immigration bill — which contains the nuts and bolts of President Bush’s guest-worker program — to a rotting fish and charged that the legislation could let foreign-born child molesters obtain U.S. citizenship.
But last night, the president flew all the way to the home state of the Alabama Republican — who has emerged as one of the Senate Republicans toughest critics against the measure — to help him raise nearly $1 million for a re-election bid in 2008. And Mr. Bush did so with a big, broad smile on his face.
“Take the immigration bill,” he said to more guffaws.
“I remember — and I’m going to share this with Sessions — I remember a political buddy of mine in Texas,” he said, “If we agreed 100 percent of the time, one of us wouldn’t be necessary.” More affable laughter, and a final admission from Mr. Bush: “He’s necessary.”
Mr. Sessions, who has made it his mission to kill the Senate bill, was also diplomatic and jovial, praising the president for his response to the attacks of September 11 and calling him a man “who loves his country.”
“He is a man of vision and faith and honor,” the senator said in his introduction.
But behind the scenes, the two men have sparred about their disagreements. Yesterday, Mr. Bush had the junior senator in his home court — Air Force One — for two flights, one to the northern part of the state for an energy event and then to Mobile.
Much of their flying time was spent discussing the immigration issue, one White House source said.
Although many Republicans oppose the measure, Mr. Sessions has become the leader of the opposition, taking to the Senate floor 17 times on the issue. On Tuesday, he expanded his crusade against the plan by issuing a list of demands for the administration to start strictly enforcing existing laws.
In his letter to the president, Mr. Sessions and other conservative leaders demanded that federal agencies clamp down in 13 areas, including disallowing in-state college tuition for illegal aliens; completing 700 miles of fence on the border with Mexico; and adding space to jail illegal aliens when captured sneaking into the United States.
The senator vehemently opposes the current form of the Senate immigration bill, which would create a path to citizenship for illegal aliens, denounced by conservatives as an amnesty, with a guest-worker program for future foreign workers. The bill collapsed in the Senate two weeks ago when Republicans and Democrats demanded more time to try to pass amendments.
While several pundits on both sides of the political divide contend that Mr. Bush has fallen out of favor with conservatives and Republicans, prompting them to shun him as election 2008 nears, several attendees at last night’s event said not so in Alabama.
“President Bush is still mighty popular down here,” said David Thompson of Foley, Ala.
“When George Bush makes a commitment, he sticks with it. He’s a gentleman,” Mr. Lee said. But asked which side he’s on, he said: “Oh, I come down with my senator. Always.”