- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 19, 2007

In forging an immigration deal this week, President Bush turned away from Republican allies in favor of striking a deal with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, banking on the senior legislator to deliver enough Democrats to pass a bill.

But the strategy may come back to haunt him, as many Democrats said they can’t accept the agreement and Republicans lined up to criticize both the deal and Mr. Bush, their party’s leader.

And it may only get worse for Mr. Bush, as political forces drive the issue: Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor running for the Republican presidential nomination, injected the issue straight into 2008 presidential politics, announcing he was running television commercials calling for better enforcement as the solution to illegal immigration.

“The president’s willingness to accept the granting of amnesty to millions of illegal immigrants has sent a harmful message to Republican voters around the country,” said Rep. Mike Pence, Indiana Republican. “But I also believe that’ll sort itself out in the primaries of 2008. At the end of the day, this is an issue where I find myself focusing less on politics than what policy I think is in the best interests of the American people.”

Last year, both Mr. Pence and Sen. John Cornyn of Texas appeared to be promising allies for Mr. Bush. Mr. Pence met with the president in the Oval Office to talk about the congressman’s plan to have illegal aliens leave the country and apply to re-enter from outside.

When Democrats won control of Congress, Mr. Bush tacked left, negotiating with Mr. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, and producing a deal on Thursday that many Republicans say is amnesty.

“The core of the apple here is the fact that 12 million illegal immigrants in this country can get right with the law without leaving the country. I think for most Americans, that is amnesty,” Mr. Pence said, adding that from his read of his colleagues — Democrats and Republicans — “I don’t believe the Senate bill has a future in the House.”

Also on the outside of the deal is Mr. Cornyn, who at one point had a bill that most closely mirrored Mr. Bush’s principles of a temporary-worker program and requiring illegal aliens to leave the country without creating a new path to citizenship for them.

Mr. Bush changed positions last April, embracing a path to citizenship, and in this new deal dropped his insistence on illegal aliens paying back taxes.

The White House issued a 10-point statement trying to fight back against criticism of the bill, saying it was not amnesty because it includes fines and a delay before a green card is awarded. The statement also touted the administration’s commitment to enforcing new, tougher immigration laws.

“I think the president agrees with every provision in this bill,” White House spokesman Tony Fratto told reporters.

The bill, which had not been completely written by last night, would allow the estimated 12 million to 20 million illegal aliens to come forward and gain probationary status while immigration authorities are hired and an employee-verification system is created. After those changes, the probational aliens could apply for a visa, and after eight years could gain a green card, which is the step before citizenship.

The bill also would create hundreds of thousands of slots for new workers, and rewrite the definitions of which family members can immigrate.

Sen. Mel Martinez, Florida Republican and one of those who negotiated the bill with lead Republican Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona and Mr. Kennedy, used yesterday to urge Republican state party officials to push the deal.

“If we don’t pass this bill, nobody that is in the shadows today will come out of the shadows and be accounted for,” he said, according to the Associated Press. Mr. Martinez also said he expects an effort to try to reduce the $5,000 top fine when the bill goes to the Senate floor next week.

For his part yesterday, Mr. Kennedy disputed the charge of amnesty. He said the bill is “a down payment” on the solution to illegal immigration and took aim at Mr. Romney’s opposition.

“I’m surprised my friend Mitt Romney is calling it that because he supported our bill that last time, and now I guess he’s changed his position,” Mr. Kennedy said on ABC’s “Good Morning America.”

The issue will resonate on the campaign trail, where there is little support for the deal among Democratic candidates, who say it is too harsh, and split support among Republicans.

Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, is closely associated with the agreement and even left the campaign trail to join the grand announcement of the deal Thursday, scoring a plum early speaking slot, then leaving before the event was over. And former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani also appears to back the basics of the agreement.

Mr. McCain this week urged the Senate to get a bill done quickly to try to minimize the political fallout.

“We all know this issue can be caught up in extracurricular politics unless we move forward as quickly as possible,” he said.

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