FOR ALL the past criticisms about his waffling on the issue, President Bush on Sunday made clear his intention to press Congress to endorse his plan for a temporary-worker program next year, an important and welcome step to reforming the nation's troubled immigration system.
"I'm going to find supporters on the hill and move it," he said at the end of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum held in Santiago, Chile, last weekend. "I am proud of my political capital," he said. "That's what you get when you win an election, and in the course of that election I talked about immigration reform."
Immigration was hardly high on the president's list of talking points during the campaign. When he did discuss it, it was in broad terms and only because he was specifically asked. His base was in no mood for any program that would bring more Mexican immigrants to the United States rather than keep more out.
Now that he's talking immigration again, President Bush is emphasizing that the guest worker plan has no amnesty or citizenship component, that participating workers will eventually return home, and that the jobs they fill will be those not wanted by Americans.
But if the recent failure of Congress to come up with intelligence reform legislation supported by the president is any indication of how independent-minded lawmakers in his party will respond to policies they disagree with, immigration reform may be an uphill battle.
Some Republican lawmakers have said that despite the president's assurances, they believe the guest worker program will lead to an amnesty program. Almost two dozen House members recently signed a letter expressing doubts about the program. Democratic supporters of immigration reform say the plan should give workers credits for the time they work, allowing them to "earn" green cards and eventually become legal permanent residents. Can these two sides be expected to go along with the Bush plan?
The president's comments assume these irksome differences can be resolved. In Chile, he met with his Mexican counterpart, Vicente Fox, and both men expressed belief that their countries would reach agreement on a guest worker program they both want and believe their nations need.
Since President Bush is not shy about reminding others of his political capital, he should use it on Capitol Hill to forge a compromise guest worker program -- and usher in a much broader plan to address the many problems in the immigration system.