Sen. Jon Kyl has come under fire from constituents for providing key support to President Bush's immigration bill, but the Arizona Republican yesterday said he pressured the White House on the bill — not the other way around — and defended his role as having improved the measure.
Mr. Kyl helped write the bill, which he said would end "chain" immigration of family members and would institute a "merit-based system for granting a green card" to aliens seeking permanent residency. He said the measure includes a "crucial fail-safe employee verification provision" and is not the "automatic path to citizenship" that critics say Mr. Bush favors.
"I disagree with the president on this," Mr. Kyl told The Washington Times. "And I still oppose amnesty."
Some Arizona Republicans say Mr. Kyl took a role in shepherding through the Senate bill because of intense pressure from the White House. Randy Pullen, chairman of the state's Republican Party, said he considers Mr. Kyl a friend and that after several long talks with the senator, he concluded that "Jon has had a lot of pressure from the president to support him on the Senate bill. And Jon is a very loyal person."
Mr. Kyl denied being motivated by White House pressure.
"I am not doing this for the White House. They didn't come to me. I went to them, saying, 'If you guys change your point of view, I will work with you.' And they did. They have not put any pressure on me. I am doing this for Arizona, not for them," he said.
Mr. Kyl said he helped convince Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff "how critically important a fail-safe employee verification system is." Mr. Chertoff "then went back to the White House, and we began to find common ground, not based on the  McCain-Kennedy bill, which the president supported and I opposed."
The Arizonan said provisions in the 2005 bill amounted to amnesty for illegal aliens and lacked sufficient border security and employee verification measures.
Conservatives criticize the current measure for some of the same reasons.
"I don't doubt Jon has improved the bill, but you can put lipstick on a pig and it's still a pig," said David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union.
Some Arizona Republicans suspect the White House assumed Mr. Kyl would not seek a fourth Senate term in 2012 and told him that he could afford to infuriate many constituents by helping the president get the immigration bill passed.
"Kyl has made it pretty clear he won't run again," Mr. Pullen said. "He closed his campaign office and sold off the furniture after his 2006 re-election."
Much of the political right in Arizona considers Mr. Kyl an apostate on immigration, so he would have a difficult time winning a fourth term, Mr. Pullen said.
Rob Haney, the Republican chairman in Sen. John McCain's home district, said the party's "grass roots are screaming to Kyl that he is destroying the Republican Party — and the country — by supporting amnesty."
State Sen. Karen Johnson said that "most of Jon Kyl's constituents feel like he absolutely has stabbed them in the back on amnesty."
"You cannot imagine the furor. They are absolutely livid."
Mr. Kyl told The Washington Times yesterday, "I have not made any final decision on running for election, but no one should assume I will not run again."
With less than two years remaining in the Bush administration, Republicans in Arizona wonder about a quid pro quo behind Mr. Kyl's role.
"It is well-known in Arizona that Jon has had his eye on a U.S. Supreme Court seat," Mrs. Johnson said.
Mr. Kyl, 65, responded with a laugh.
"And let [Arizona's Democratic Gov.] Janet Napolitano appoint my successor? It is ridiculous to even imagine such a thing," he said. "There's not going to be a vacancy on the court, and I wouldn't act on such a quid pro quo."
He noted that the most senior liberal justices on the high court aren't likely to step down with the chance that a Democrat will assume the presidency in 2009.