Wednesday, October 18, 2006

The White House is pleading with Congress to send over the bill authorizing 700 miles of fence on the U.S.-Mexico border so the president can sign it immediately, but Republican leaders on Capitol Hill want to wait until closer to the election and to have a public signing ceremony.

“Send us the damn bill. We’d like to autograph it,” said a senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to allow for more freedom to discuss politics and policy.

“Our object was to sign it last week so we can have port security and border security together and herald an effort to control all of the borders of the United States. We even had ways to talk about what we were doing at the airports,” the official said.

Congressional Republicans, though, are convinced the issue is a political winner and want to hold onto the bill so it will be signed closer to next month’s congressional elections. Once the bill is sent to the president, he has a limited amount of time to sign it before it dies as a pocket veto.

“It’s a timing issue: We want it signed closer to the election when folks are paying attention and those who want to take advantage of the messaging opportunity can do so, and the White House is aware of this,” said an aide to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Tennessee Republican. House Republican leadership aides confirmed that strategy.

Mr. Bush has already signed a spending bill with money for some fencing, but has yet to sign the bill actually authorizing the double-wall fence along nearly 700 miles of the border. Congress passed both bills in the waning days of the legislative session last month.

Many blogs from across the political spectrum have speculated he is trying to scuttle the bill with a pocket veto, but Mr. Bush has said he will sign it, though in private, without a signing ceremony.

Congressional Republicans said that is a bad move at a critical political time.

“A public signing ceremony with the maximum amount of fanfare in a high-profile place would be the best thing the president could do to help out Republicans who are having trouble in their re-elections,” said Rep. Steve King, Iowa Republican, adding that such a ceremony would go a long way to counteract cynicism from voters who question the White House’s commitment to border security.

“People think we’re not going to get it done,” he said.

The bill’s actual status is somewhat murky. Calls to the House clerk’s office were referred to the House Administration Committee, and a spokeswoman was not able to say where the bill was.

Mr. King said he has assigned his staff to track down the bill because he, too, wants to know where it stands.

The Bush administration official said the bill’s status has been explained several times, but “I for the life of me could not explain it to you.”

The official rejected a signing ceremony, and said the White House doesn’t want voters to expect too much out of the wall.

“We’ve got to be careful,” the official said. “We are doing a lot on the border, and we cannot raise expectations that this bill of 700 miles of fence is going to happen immediately.”

The official said the Department of Homeland Security doubts the value of 700 miles of fencing, instead saying that between 316 miles and 377 miles makes the most sense.

“You talk to the members of Congress about the 700 miles, and there’s not a single member who can give you a plausible explanation of how they arrived at 700 miles,” the official said. “We’ll build every mile of fence that is useful and necessary to build, and if they tell us to build 700, we’ll find a way to build 700 miles of fence, but let’s not kid ourselves.”

The official also said those members of Congress who want to tout their support for the fence are already doing it.

“Every place where they voted for it, they’re out there talking about it. Anybody who thinks a one-day signing ceremony is the end-all, be-all, ought to be up talking to the congressional leadership telling them to send us the damn bill so we can sign it,” the official said.

Part of the White House’s aversion to fanfare may be the context of the broader immigration debate.

Mr. Bush had fought for a bill that would include a guest-worker program for future foreign workers and citizenship rights for most of the estimated 12 million to 20 million illegal aliens already in the country.

But House Republicans insisted on passing border-enforcement legislation first, and, after initially supporting a broader bill, Mr. Frist agreed to bring the bill up on the Senate floor, where it passed overwhelmingly.

Mr. King said that if Mr. Bush doesn’t have a public ceremony for the bill, “there’s something substituting at the White House for good political judgment.”

There has been a marked difference in how Republicans have handled the issue during this year’s campaign. While Mr. Bush never mentions the issue on the campaign trail, Republican candidates use it in districts and states across the nation.

“When the border-fence bill is finally signed by President Bush, I hope that it is given the pomp and circumstance that it deserves,” said Rep. Tom Tancredo, Colorado Republican and chairman of the Congressional Immigration Reform Caucus, who has helped several Republican candidates campaign on the immigration issue.

He pointed to a report released yesterday by the House Homeland Security Committee that he said showed the Southwest border has become “the entryway for Middle Eastern terrorists, Mexican drug cartels and human smugglers.”

Several lobby groups have asked Mr. Bush to veto the bill, including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the National Council of La Raza and the Mexican government.

But at a press conference last week, Mr. Bush said he is committed to building the 700 miles of fencing, though he said the Department of Homeland Security will decide where and that he wants sensors and cameras to watch the border.

“We’re going to do both,” he said. “We’re just going to make sure that we build it in a spot where it works.”

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