WASHINGTON --Until late last week President Bush had, at least publicly, stayed on the sidelines as the Senate hashed out a compromise between sealing the U.S. borders and legalizing the illegal work force already here without granting what opponents could call "amnesty."
This week, Bush has placed himself at the vanguard of the issue, publicly lacerating the Senate minority leader, Harry Reid of Nevada, for blocking immigration policy legislation on procedural grounds.
Bush accused Reid yesterday of "single-handedly thwarting the will of the American people and impeding bipartisan efforts to secure this border and make this immigration system of ours more humane and rational."
It was the second time in a week that Bush had directly attacked Reid, who blames Republicans for the stalemate. The president's words have been followed up with e-mail messages from the White House to the news media and by comments from his press secretary.
Republicans are worried that a tougher bill in the House, cracking down on illegal immigrants, has become associated with the party. They hope the campaign will turn public sentiment against Democrats and pressure Reid to allow a bill to proceed.
White House officials are in regular contact with party allies trying to figure out how involved Bush should get in the Senate fight.
Bush has avoided wading too deeply into the details of the legislation, sticking to statements that he would like to see "comprehensive reform" that creates a program giving illegal immigrants the right to work here and provides for tighter border control and stricter enforcement against law breakers.
Sen. Mel Martinez, a Florida Republican, said the plan had been to keep the president out of the fight in the Senate so that he could serve as a broker who could pull his party together during what would be difficult negotiations reconciling the Senate and House bills.
White House officials have acknowledged that the administration initially erred in stressing guest worker provisions more than border enforcement, stepping squarely into the abyss separating the moderates and conservatives of his party.