- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 22, 2006

President Bush yesterday said illegal aliens, even longtime residents with families, should not get “automatic citizenship” as part of any new guest-worker program.

In a one-hour morning press conference that covered Iraq, Iran and domestic issues, Mr. Bush weighed in on the ongoing immigration debate, countered the chatter that he will soon shake up the White House, said he is “not satisfied” with rising entitlement spending, and dared Democrats to oppose him on terrorist wiretapping.

“If people in the party believe that, then they ought to stand up and say it,” he said of Democrats critical of his decision to allow the National Security Agency to monitor U.S.-international calls that intelligence officers think involve terrorists.

“They ought to take their message to the people, and say, ‘Vote for me. I promise we’re not going to have terrorist surveillance program,’” Mr. Bush said.

But Sen. Russell D. Feingold, the Wisconsin Democrat who has proposed censuring Mr. Bush over his use of wiretaps authority, said the issue is whether the law allows the program, and he accused Mr. Bush of raising a straw man.

“Of course we should wiretap suspected terrorists, and under current law, we can,” he said. “The question is why the president believes he needs to break the law to do so.”

On immigration, an issue now pending in Congress, Mr. Bush warned against turning it into “a fractious debate.”

He stressed border security and said his administration is working to end the “catch-and-release” policy under which non-Mexican illegal aliens are processed and released with the usually false hope they will return for a hearing and deportation.

As for the issue of what happens to the estimated 12 million illegal aliens already here, including longtime residents with families and roots here, Mr. Bush said they should not be able to jump in line ahead of those who have waited legally for citizenship.

“My answer is, that person shouldn’t get automatic citizenship,” he said.

In his second press conference of the year, Mr. Bush both joked with and chastised the press, particularly Hearst Newspapers columnist Helen Thomas, who told the president he was “going to be sorry” for calling on her to ask a question.

She asserted that Mr. Bush wanted “to go to war from the moment you stepped into the White House,” but the president disputed her premise, then had to repeatedly tell her to let him finish his answer.

Another time he joked that the press had been sleeping through his Monday war on terror speech, pointing out New York Times reporter Elisabeth Bumiller in particular, who denied it. “OK, well the person next to you was,” Mr. Bush said, laughing. “They were dozing off, you know. I could see them watching their watches.”

He also seemed to enjoy a question about whether he would shake up his staff, casting a wary eye at Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove, press secretary Scott McClellan and other top staffers sitting to his right in the Brady Press Briefing Room.

“Wait a minute. Is this a personal attack launching over here?” he said, before telling reporters he backs his staff.

“I’m satisfied with the people I’ve surrounded myself with,” he said.

He did say, though, that there are times he’s frustrated with the government bureaucracy. He singled out Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff as someone he had told to make use of 11,000 trailers that the Department of Homeland Security has bought for Hurricane Katrina victims but that are reportedly sitting idle.

Mr. Bush said Republicans worried about the political future should keep faith, recalling “a certain nervousness” among Republicans heading into the 2002 and 2004 elections. But he said Republicans should not be afraid of running on the Republican accomplishments of the last five years.

While he defended the domestic accomplishments of his administration, though, he indicated that his focus remains the war on terror.

At one point, asked what happened to the “political capital” he said he earned after the 2004 election and promised to spend on immigration and other domestic priorities, Mr. Bush was frank about where it’s gone: “I’d say I’m spending that capital on the war.”

He blamed the increasing debt on rising entitlement spending, saying he and Congress were doing their best to hold the line on discretionary spending. He called on Congress to follow his budget and make deeper entitlement spending cuts this year — something the Senate has already rejected in its budget, passed last week.

“In terms of the debt, mandatory spending increases are driving a lot of that debt, and that’s why it’s important to get the reforms done,” Mr. Bush said.

But Rep. Charles B. Rangel of New York, the top Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee, said Mr. Bush has had his chance.

“This president has been in office five years too long to be credible on the issue of spending restraint or a balanced budget,” Mr. Rangel said.

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