WASHINGTON -- A fierce fight is brewing among Republicans over President Bush's plans for sweeping immigration reform during his second term, pitting one of the president's highest priorities against a determined conservative opposition on Capitol Hill.
As Bush begins his push to enact the plan, a top priority and one he sees as an element of his legacy, a powerful group of conservative Republicans in the House is flexing its muscles to make it clear that it intends to block the measure, or at least add major restrictions to it.
Nowhere are the battle lines clearer than in the current negotiations over a measure to reorganize the nation's intelligence community in response to the Sept. 11 attacks. The fate of that bill, strongly supported by most Republicans and Democrats in Congress, is hanging by a thread because of staunch opposition from House conservatives, in large part because it omits the restrictive immigration provisions they demanded. They call such changes imperative to fighting terrorism.
No matter what the outcome of the pitched negotiations, the showdown demonstrates the intensity of the fight to come next year. The immigration debate has awakened deep divisions among Republicans, between some members of Congress and a president they fear will drift too far to the center in his quest for a lasting legacy.
Bush has "got to recognize the fact that if he continues to push it as hard as he is, that this is really going to divide" Republicans, said Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado, a conservative who leads his party's immigration reform caucus and has introduced legislation to put a moratorium on immigration.
Conservatives who oppose Bush's immigration plans were willing to keep quiet about their views in the interest of presenting a united front for Bush during the presidential race, Tancredo said. But "now the gloves are off. There are a lot of members who have bitten their lip during the campaign, but now the campaign's over. They can stand their ground, and they intend to."
Lawmakers and senior aides see the fight as one of several awaiting Bush at the start of his second term when he asks Congress to help him achieve his highest goals, including making major changes to the Social Security program and overhauling the tax code.
Most believe that Bush will have to work with Democrats to get what he wants on many of these issues, including immigration, but some Republicans worry that in doing so, the president may be willing to cut deals they cannot live with, leaving them to vote against popular Bush initiatives or risk alienating their like-minded constituents.
That anxiety has driven much of the dispute over the intelligence measure. With the backing of many Republicans, Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. of Wisconsin, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, insisted on preserving provisions in that measure to deny illegal immigrants driver's licenses, send asylum-seekers back to their home countries while their applications were being considered, and speed up deportations.
"Many see this as a precursor to future potential fights we could have on a variety of issues," said one senior Republican aide in the House. "We need to have deals that a majority of our guys can support."
At the moment, it appears that Bush's immigration plan would not qualify. He has proposed a new guest worker program that would allow people who are in the United States illegally to gain temporary legal status by registering for a card that would entitle them to work in the country for three years.
The plan has opponents among Democrats and Republicans alike. Conservative Republicans seeking to limit immigration lambaste the plan as a blanket grant of amnesty that rewards people for breaking the law to enter the country.
"He's trying to do something that half of his members in the House don't want," Tancredo said.
"The Republicans aren't going to walk off a cliff for a lame-duck president," said Dan Stein, the president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, an immigration control group that is vehemently against Bush's proposal. "It's funny, he's saying he came out with a lot of political capital after the election. It's like, well, you're not running again, buddy. Members of the House are always running."
On the other side, many Democrats see Bush's plan as ineffective, arguing that few immigrants would come forward to gain legal status only to risk losing it after three years. They argue that any immigration measure must give undocumented workers a path to legalization.
Still, Democrats say they are encouraged to hear Bush pushing hard for immigration reform, and insist they are ready to work with him to reach an agreement.
"It seems to me that history has shown us that if you want to get immigration reform done -- substantive immigration reform, which is fair and just -- you're going to have to have Democrats on board, the majority of the votes are going to have to come from the Democratic Party, you're going to have to speak Democrat," said Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez, an Illinois Democrat who leads his party's immigration caucus.
Gutierrez has written legislation, similar to a measure by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, that would create a temporary worker program and allow illegal immigrants a chance to earn legalization once they had lived in the United States for five years and worked for two years.
In the Senate, where influential Republicans including Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska have expressed support for Bush's immigration agenda, the prospects for a bipartisan deal on his proposal are better. Still, six of the seven newly elected Senate Republicans are conservatives who formerly served in the House, whom Tancredo described as "people who are pretty much on our side."
Cecilia Munoz of the National Council of La Raza said that Sensenbrenner's campaign to stonewall the intelligence measure shows that Bush has no choice but to turn against some in his party if he wants to see his plan become a reality.
"The actions of the anti-immigrant wing of the party on the intelligence bill demonstrate very clearly that if the president wants reform to pass, he has to work in a bipartisan way. The door is very much open for doing that," said Munoz, the Hispanic advocacy group's vice president for policy.
Some advocates worry that this fall's fight over immigration provisions has emboldened conservative forces in the House who are determined to use Bush's push for his guest worker program as a vehicle to move an agenda hostile to immigrants and asylum-seekers.
"There's been concern for some time, and it makes sense, that after the election there would be renewed vigor to push for anti-asylum provisions, and that's what we're seeing," said Cory Smith, the legislative counsel for Human Rights First, a refugee advocacy group that has been fighting against the asylum provision.
"If these provisions don't end up in the final version of the intelligence reform bill, I think that we can count on seeing them next year. There could be some trade-offs with the president's desire to have immigration reform." Republicans and their top aides are talking about attaching strict border control and security measures to his guest worker bill.
"You can't stop terrorism if you don't stop illegal immigration," Stein said. "And until we see a recognition of that from this administration, I don't think they're going to get anywhere on a guest worker program."
Sensenbrenner's provisions, he said, "in a minute would give any guest worker program credibility."
Rep. Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican who is among the proponents of Bush's guest worker proposal, said he also backs Sensenbrenner's driver's license proposal.
"These things aren't mutually exclusive -- we've got to do both," Flake said. "We desperately need immigration reform in its own right, aside from security, but in my view it presents a good opportunity to do both."