WASHINGTON -- President Bush's decision to step into the middle of an immigration crossfire among Republicans has opened a messy and high-stakes congressional battle that analysts and strategists say signals a new approach by Bush.
By insisting on a path to citizenship for some illegal immigrants, the president is showing a greater willingness to break with his party's conservative wing, once the bloc that backed him most staunchly. To help persuade them to accept it, he is pushing for a package of tougher border security measures.
The strategy could yield a compromise on a tricky domestic issue and help cement Bush's legacy, but Republicans acknowledge that it is fraught with risks for their party. Likely Senate passage this week of an immigration measure similar to the president's plan would mark the beginning of prolonged House-Senate negotiations that would spotlight the divisions between Bush and warring Republican factions as the November elections creep closer.
"The worst-case scenario is that you simultaneously anger everybody, and [Bush and his team] seem to be headed in that direction," said Michael Franc of the conservative Heritage Foundation.
The approach stands in stark contrast to the way Bush worked with Congress during his first five years in office, when he put a premium on forging a unified front with congressional Republicans, especially the conservatives who dominate the House and make up his base, on major issues.
"The House used to be the most reliable source of support for anything the president wanted to do, but on this one -- partly because this issue scrambles the normal party lines in a way that most others don't -- he can't count on that," said Bruce Buchanan, a University of Texas political scientist. "They're sticking to their guns for the time being."
With his popularity at record lows and Republicans worried about their re-election chances, such symbiosis -- which helped produce victories for Bush during his first term on tax cuts, education and prescription drugs -- might no longer be possible, or even desirable, strategists and lawmakers said.
"Those days have ended," said Rep. Christopher Shays, a Connecticut Republican, referring to the time when Bush could depend on party congressional leaders to push through his agenda without question. "It's not in his interest or ours. ... We're an independent body, and we need to act that way."
Immigration is a vivid example. Bush's position is at odds with that of the Republican-led House of Representatives, which passed a border security-only measure last year, and where key players view any guest worker plan that gives illegal immigrants a path to U.S. citizenship as a nonstarter.
Bush's strong focus last week on border security -- including his call in a nationally televised address to deploy the National Guard to help police the U.S.-Mexican border -- drew praise from conservatives. But it appears to have done little to increase the chances that they will accept his broader plan.
"I liken it to taking a bite out of an apple. The first bite at the immigration apple is border security. What they want to do is shove the whole apple down our throats," said Rep. Patrick T. McHenry, a North Carolina Republican, who called Bush's guest worker plan "amnesty with makeup."
The Senate is moving toward passage this week of a measure that pairs beefed-up security -- including construction of a 370-mile fence to seal popular border crossings -- with a guest worker program that would allow some of the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants here to earn their way to citizenship by paying fines and taxes, learning English and holding down a job.
Republicans acknowledge that reconciling the Senate measure with the House version will be difficult.
"You've got an 18-wheel truck leaving the Senate and a one-wheel unicycle coming out of the House, and how do you, in that, build a comprehensive vehicle? I don't know," said Sen. Larry E. Craig of Idaho, a leading backer of the Senate measure and Bush's approach.
By putting himself in the middle of the debate, Bush might be taking a page from his predecessor, President Bill Clinton, who was famous for what came to be called "triangulation" -- carving out an appealing center course on tough issues by distancing himself from both parties.
Franc of the Heritage Foundation said Bush's immigration stance is "one of the first signs of true triangulation that I've seen" from this president.
"He seems to be adopting a more take-charge attitude toward Congress," Franc added.
Dick Morris, who is credited with perfecting the approach for Clinton, said Bush's immigration strategy is "triangulation at its best." "He is taking the best from the right and from the left and discarding the rest," Morris said in an e-mail.
The strategy could work if Bush "builds the wall brick by brick, mile after mile, with the whole nation watching," Morris said.
The president appeared to be using just such an approach late last week during his trip to Yuma, Ariz., where he examined a stretch of U.S.-Mexico border fence.
Later, in remarks to Border Patrol personnel that detailed his security proposals, Bush repeated an assertion made in his national address: that it is not practical to deport the nation's illegal immigrants and not appropriate to grant them amnesty.
But he said that immigrants who have put down roots in this country over many years, stayed employed and kept out of trouble should be allowed a chance at citizenship.
"That ain't amnesty," Bush said.
The White House acknowledges that Bush is trying to find the center in a debate that sparks intense emotions.
"What he was trying to do is explain to the American people what the two poles are in the debate and how he intends to be in the middle," White House spokesman Tony Snow said of Bush's televised address.
Some Republican lawmakers have bristled, however, at the contrast that Bush is drawing, which they fear is demonizing those who oppose allowing illegal immigrants to become citizens. Many are their constituents.
Sen. George Allen, a Virginia Republican, said the president was making a "straw man argument" that was "more of a way to try to win an argument by characterizing your opponent in the least favorable light."
"That's not the position of most of us who believe that we should be a nation of immigrants and a nation of laws," Allen said.
"The problem is that the president said that there needs to be a rational middle ground between amnesty and mass deportation, and then he said that that middle ground is amnesty," said Rep. Mike Pence, an Indiana Republican. "That's not tenable."
The Pence plan
Pence plans to unveil this week his version of a middle course: a measure that would facilitate what he called "voluntary deportation" of illegal immigrants through a privately administered program. Participants could go to Mexico and obtain a temporary worker card, provided that they had a job waiting in the United States and no criminal record.
A healthy intraparty debate over how to tackle immigration is positive, Pence said, echoing Republican strategists who say that lawmakers would benefit from drawing contrasts with Bush on the touchy issue.
"There's been far too much accommodation between the executive and legislative branch in the last five years, and a little bit of friction would be a good thing," Pence said.
Some analysts say that inflaming those tensions is a gamble for Bush, who has accomplished little on his domestic wish list since winning a second term. The debate could produce a landmark achievement for Bush, who has been interested in immigration since his days as governor of Texas. But it could alienate his core conservative supporters, the Hispanic voting bloc he has courted or both, strategists said.
"From the start, the president has taken a moderate position on this issue," said William A. Galston, a former domestic policy adviser to Clinton. "He's struggled to find a sustainable balance, and the question is, can he get there without doing too much damage to his party?"