President Bush yesterday rebuked members of his own political party for trying to “frighten people” into opposing his immigration bill, prompting a quick backlash from some Republicans.
“Those determined to find fault with this bill will always be able to look at a narrow slice of it and find something they don’t like,” Mr. Bush said, speaking at a training center for immigration enforcement officials in Glynco, Ga.
“If you want to kill the bill, if you don’t want to do what’s right for America, you can pick one little aspect out of it, you can use it to frighten people. Or you can show leadership and solve this problem once and for all,” Mr. Bush said.
The response to Republicans who say Mr. Bush wants amnesty for illegal aliens provoked the ire of conservative organizers and legislators alike.
“That’s hurtful language,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions, Alabama Republican. “If the bill did what they promised it was going to do, I’d support it. I’m for comprehensive reform, but it has to serve the national interests, not political interest.”
“I don’t think it’s courage to support this flawed bill. I think sometimes it takes a bit of courage to resist this kind of short-term reform, so we can create a system that can actually work,” Mr. Sessions said.
Rep. Brian P. Bilbray, California Republican and chairman of the Immigration Reform Caucus, took issue with Mr. Bush’s assertion that critics are objecting to a “narrow slice” of the bill.
“Amnesty for 12-20 million illegal immigrants isn’t a ‘narrow slice’ … it’s the whole darn pie,” Mr. Bilbray said. “What part of illegal does the president not understand? The American people … don’t want another amnesty.”
Paul Weyrich, founder of the conservative Free Congress Foundation, said that “there are legitimate reasons to oppose this legislation, and I don’t think that it behooves the president to call people names or make accusations against them if they disagree with him.”
“He is angering people beyond belief to the point that the Republican Party is going to split in two, thanks to him. If this bill passes, the Republicans will not recover from it,” Mr. Weyrich said.
An aide to one Republican senator who is usually a close White House ally said that Mr. Bush had questioned the patriotism of lawmakers who are concerned about granting amnesty to illegal aliens.
“[It] not only stretches the bounds of credibility with conservative Republicans but in fact, it further erodes their confidence in this administration,” said the aide, who asked that his name not be used.
Mr. Weyrich said the president was repeating the mistake he made in 2005 when he nominated Harriet E. Miers, Mr. Bush’s White House counsel at the time, to the Supreme Court. Miss Miers removed herself from consideration after intense opposition from conservatives.
The deep division among Republicans is clear from the experience of South Carolina’s two Republican senators. Sen. Lindsey Graham, who is supporting Mr. Bush on immigration, was booed by Republican activists last week, while Sen. Jim DeMint has been greeted with standing ovations at his events over the last week for opposing Mr. Bush on this issue.
“People are coming up and patting him on the back in the grocery store,” said Mr. DeMint’s spokesman, Wesley Denton.
Mr. Bush’s remarks yesterday follow similar attacks by White House allies. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff recently said he thinks some in the debate feel “anything other than capital punishment is an amnesty,” and conservative commentator Linda Chavez said Republican opponents are xenophobes who “think Latinos are dirty, diseased, indolent and more prone to criminal behavior.”
Meanwhile, Mr. Bush has been harshly criticized by members of Congress, and conservative talk-show hosts have said his actions are grounds for impeachment.
The president was placed in the odd position of being supported against attacks from his own party by a lion of the Democratic Party, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts. “The president is right,” Mr. Kennedy said. “This bill is our best chance to fix our broken system.”
Lawmakers are currently in their home districts on a 10-day Memorial Day recess, and many border state and Midwest lawmakers are under pressure from constituents to oppose the proposed plan.
A White House official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that “the people who are on the far right or the far left are never going to get what they want on this issue.”
The current plan was hammered out by White House officials and a small bipartisan group of legislators, and the Senate will resume debate on the issue next week when Congress returns.
Sen. Saxby Chambliss was the only Georgia Republican lawmaker to appear on the platform yesterday with Mr. Bush. Earlier this month, Mr. Chambliss was booed when he defended the Senate bill at the Georgia Republican Convention. Both he and Georgia’s other Republican senator, Johnny Isakson, support the proposal but have said they might change their minds depending on how the Senate bill is amended.
Mr. Bush yesterday said the first priority of the plan is to continue building fencing, hire U.S. Border Patrol agents and implement a worker-registration system that will help the government crack down on hiring illegal aliens.
The bill also gives current illegal aliens immediate legal status and an eventual chance to apply for a new “Z visa,” then a green card and eventually citizenship.
Mr. Bush said the plan would require all of the estimated 12 million to 20 million illegal aliens to come forward and register with the government, pay a “meaningful fine,” and pay any back taxes, before applying for a Z visa.
“Amnesty is forgiveness for being here without any penalties. … This bill is not an amnesty bill. If you want to scare the American people, what you say is, ‘The bill’s an amnesty bill,’ ” Mr. Bush said. “That’s empty political rhetoric trying to frighten our fellow citizens.”
Mr. Bush denounced those who are “out there hollerin’ and saying, ‘Kick ‘em out,’ ” saying such an approach “is simply unrealistic. It won’t work.”
Mr. Bush said that in a non-election year, “Congress has a historic window to act” on the immigration issue. He repeatedly framed the debate as a battle between courage and fear.
“It takes a lot of courage in the face of some of the criticism in the political world to do what’s right, not what’s comfortable. And what’s right is to fix this system now before it’s too late,” the president said.
Stephen Dinan contributed to this report.