Wednesday, June 13, 2007

President Bush visited with Senate Republicans behind closed doors yesterday, promising that he will follow through on border security, pleading with them to give his immigration plans a second look and trying to overcome hard feelings that arose from his recent charge that opponents are guilty of trying to “frighten people.”

“We’ve got to convince the American people that this bill is the best way to enforce our border,” Mr. Bush said after an hourlong lunch with the senators. “I believe without the bill that it’s going to be harder to enforce the border.”

The bill is stalled for now, the victim of a collapse last week, and Democrats say Mr. Bush must prove that he can deliver 20 votes in support of the bill before they will put it back on the schedule. Mr. Bush is struggling to win those votes and has come under fire from Republicans who say he must first do more to prove he is serious about enforcement.

One idea that seemed to gain immediate traction among the Republicans was for Mr. Bush to send up a new emergency-spending bill to fund border security.

“If we’re really going to get support for this bill from the American people there’s got to be some restoration of trust,” said Sen. Saxby Chambliss, Georgia Republican, who sent a letter with fellow Georgia Republican Johnny Isakson proposing the spending bill. “There’s got to be some effort shown on the part of the administration before I think there’s going to be a sufficient number of folks deciding to move this bill forward.”

No cost estimate has been proposed for the emergency spending bill, though Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican, had a $3.9 billion amendment last year to fund all of the authorized immigration enforcement.

It drew the praise of Republicans involved in the “grand bargain” — the group of senators that wrote the immigration bill behind closed doors.

“The president said I’m willing to find something that will build confidence, and so I think that is something that may come as a new outcome as a result of this conversation,” said Sen. Mel Martinez, Florida Republican.

The White House, though open to the idea, was noncommittal.

“There were some ideas that were raised during the meeting, and the president and members of his administration will consider them,” said Scott Stanzel, a White House spokesman.

In addition to Mr. Chambliss and Mr. Isakson, a group of senators yesterday sent a letter challenging the Bush administration to pledge to enforce immigration laws regardless of whether the bill passes.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said in a reply letter that his department “has always vigorously enforced the law, and will continue to do so,” but added that to stop illegal immigration, he needs new tools contained in the bill, particularly for employer verification, to help with enforcement.

“Give me the tools to do it,” he told reporters on a conference call. “Don’t ask us to go out and use half the tools, or a quarter of the tools, to do the job.”

Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, said the burden is on the Republicans to prove that they can deliver the votes to pass the bill, and he rejected the back-and-forth talk over numbers of amendments.

“I did that once. I’m not dancing that tune again,” he said. “It is up to the Republicans. I have agreed to go forward on this if they give me a way to move forward on it.’

As part of the grand bargain, Republicans agreed to accept a path to citizenship for illegal aliens in exchange for Democrats accepting a temporary work program for future foreign workers and a rewrite of immigration laws to prioritize those with needed skills or education.

Republicans led an effort to block the bill last week, insisting on having a chance to offer more amendments. Now, members of the grand bargain are working with senators on both sides to come up with a finite list of amendments.

The White House is optimistic that can be accomplished, with press secretary Tony Snow telling reporters that the key provisions of the bill have the support of more than 60 senators — enough to break a filibuster and force the bill to passage.

That was demonstrated by votes during the debate showing strong support for keeping a guest-worker program for future workers and for a path to citizenship for illegal aliens.

Still, it’s a delicate balance.

Mr. Bush annoyed Republicans two weeks ago when, in two sets of remarks, he accused those who oppose the bill of trying to “frighten people.”

One top opponent, Sen. Jeff Sessions, said Mr. Bush’s appearance yesterday helped smooth things over. He said it made it “very much less likely we’d have hard feelings or personal animosity.”

Mr. Bush didn’t escape unscathed, though. Addressing reporters after the lunch, he called the issue “highly emotional” — irking Mr. Sessions, Alabama Republican, who said that assessment sounded “as if people who don’t agree with me are irrational or emotional.”

Although the mood on the Senate side was collegial, House Republicans are gearing up for a battle with their party leader, with one saying Mr. Bush should just accept that he lost.

“The task of this administration needs to be to accept defeat of the Senate amnesty bill and get on with the task of stopping the bleeding on our southern border and applying all our resources to workplace enforcement,” said Rep. Steve King of Iowa, the top Republican on the House Judiciary immigration subcommittee.

One key question is how to go forward even though several amendments have already cut at the grand bargain — including limiting the guest-worker program and making it easier to deport those who don’t qualify for legalization — and several other difficult amendments could pass before the bill is final.

Senate Minority Whip Trent Lott, Mississippi Republican, said those amendments will simply disappear when the House and Senate go to conference.

“No big deal — you pitch those before you get to the Rotunda,” he said.

But that is just what those who oppose the bill fear.

“I’m really disturbed Trent Lott would say: accept an amendment, he’ll pitch it in conference,” Mr. Sessions said. “Whose side is he on?”

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