Immigration push seen as Bush’s shot at legacy

President Bush has invested the bulk of his dwindling political capital to push through an unpopular immigration-reform bill, which is being seen as a last-ditch effort during his remaining 19 months in office to leave behind a domestic achievement.

Despite the issue tearing apart the conservative movement, the president has courted liberals to support his efforts. And while conservative talk radio repeatedly has labeled the current Senate proposal amnesty — the president said as much yesterday before his press secretary sent out a clarification — Mr. Bush has pulled out all stops to win approval for the legislation, spearheaded by Democratic Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts.

In recent months, the administration ramped up its efforts, culminating this week with a full-court press on Capitol Hill. Cabinet members chatted with lawmakers and twisted a few arms. Vice President Dick Cheney even made a rare visit to the Senate, where he swore in its newest member.

Yesterday, the White House put Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez on a conference call with reporters shortly after the Senate voted to revive the bill.

“I think the reason it’s important to the president is because he realizes how important it is for the country,” Mr. Chertoff said in answer to a question from The Washington Times.

The president’s closest advisers are on the same page.

“This would be the biggest domestic accomplishment of his second term, and it’s also something that he passionately believes in, so they’re obviously putting the maximum effort into it,” said veteran Republican consultant Charles Black.

But one former administration official says the president is going to the mat over immigration in an effort to leave behind a domestic achievement to counter the mismanagement of the war in Iraq.

“There’s no question that this is his last opportunity to do something that is fairly popular across America, and maybe wash away some of the bad taste from Iraq,” the former official said. “He really has just this one chance. … He doesn’t care much what his base thinks.”

The president also has made a personal investment, calling senators and congressmen to the White House. Five of his last nine radio addresses were on the topic — one he even recorded while traveling in Eastern Europe.

He also has participated in a half-dozen immigration events in the past month and the White House continues to put out fact sheets and rebuttals to criticism nearly every day.

His staff is working just as hard. A few weeks ago, White House press secretary Tony Snow addressed a group of the bill’s supporters in a private event at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, one source said. He told those gathered at another such event that without passage of the current bill, Republicans will lose the presidential election in 2008, said one attendee.

In addition, most of the members of the White House policy hierarchy — including Deputy Chief of Staff Joel Kaplan, Candida Wolff of the White House Legislative Affairs Office, and a gaggle of lawyers — camped out on the Hill throughout May during negotiations over the bill.

As he did during the early days of his first term, Mr. Bush once again has joined forces with Mr. Kennedy. The political odd couple worked closely to pass the No Child Left Behind Act, and Mr. Kennedy is the prime architect of the Senate measure to overhaul immigration.

The president’s actions have angered conservatives, many of whom oppose the bill, and has alienated some of his one-time staunch supporters. Mr. Bush expended a large chunk of his political capital in 2005 on his plan to overhaul Social Security, which died as both Republicans and Democrats fought the move. He lost more conservative support by championing a new prescription drug program for Medicare recipients.

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