President Bush, who takes his case for a guest-worker program directly to the American people tonight in an address from the Oval Office, is in need of a political win — and also needs to convince members of his own party to back him.
He is expected to call for a broader role for the National Guard in supporting the U.S. Border Patrol, and urge Congress to couple border security with a new program for foreign workers and a way to deal with the estimated 10 million to 12 million illegal aliens now in the country.
Despite terrible polls — a recent Zogby survey showed 13 percent approval of the president’s handling of immigration — the White House believes the public is coming around to its point of view.
“If you’ve seen the trajectory of this issue, I think this issue has trended towards the president’s position,” a senior administration official told reporters Friday. “I think people are recognizing that any common-sense solution has to deal with the 12 million that are here. You can’t just load them all up and send them home.”
Mr. Bush is under pressure to address border security. In recent speeches, he has touted increased spending on the border, but it has not translated into approval. The Zogby poll showed a 9 percent approval rate of his handling of border security in particular.
And Democrats have found an opportunity to blast the president on the issue and push for more funding.
“This administration ignored the recommendations of the 9/11 commission and failed to adequately fund border patrols and border security, but has a bottomless pit of money to give oil executives multimillion-dollar tax cuts,” said Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Rahm Emanuel, Illinois Democrat. “When you prioritize that way, when you place political ideology ahead of practical solutions, our nation’s problems only grow, and no rhetoric will cover it up.”
The administration is exploring ways to increase the National Guard’s presence on the border, but that plan is already drawing fire from Congress and governors.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, California Republican, said this weekend he does not want to overtax the Guard, and Sen. Chuck Hagel, Nebraska Republican, said on ABC’s “This Week” program that helping out on the border is “not the role of our military.”
“That’s a short-term fix, and I’m not sure that’s a very wise fix,” said Mr. Hagel, who is a sponsor of the chief Senate proposal, which would both dramatically increase legal immigration and create a right to citizenship for most illegal aliens who have been in the country for two years or more.
His plan, sponsored with Sen. Mel Martinez, Florida Republican, would also boost enforcement, though not as much as the House bill that passed in December.
The administration has sent mixed signals about what it wants to happen to illegal aliens, with two Cabinet secretaries testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee last year that there should not be a path to citizenship from the guest-worker program.
But Mr. Bush has recently embraced the concept of a new path to citizenship in a meeting with senators, and the senior administration official who briefed reporters said the question before them now is what number of years to draw the line for the path to citizenship.
“I think that most people are recognizing that you can’t treat this group monolithically,” the official said.