Setback for the president

WASHINGTON -- President Bush marched into the conference room where Cabinet aides were promoting immigration reform last week and, with cameras rolling, pledged his administration would "get the job done."

Days later, with Bush thousands of miles away for a summit of industrialized nations, the immigration legislation suffered an abrupt collapse, at least temporarily done in by frustrated Republican and Democratic lawmakers left out of closed-door negotiations, media critics and average citizens upset at the plan.


This week's setback for Bush's top domestic priority illustrates not only the weakened state of his presidency, but the fragile and elusive nature of the middle ground on a wrenching social issue, political analysts say. It also points to the power of critics on talk radio and TV who railed incessantly against the plan.

"For something this complex to pass, everything has got to be in place," said Ross K. Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University. "There has to be a much better job of public education."


Bush and the Senate's immigration negotiators had hoped a plan providing tighter border security, legal status for about 12 million illegal immigrants and a revised system for letting in newcomers based on skills and education would win approval.

But Thursday night, Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid pulled the legislation after failing to get a 60-vote majority needed to end debate on amendments offered by lawmakers trying to jettison the compromise.

Regrouping within hours, Senate leaders insisted yesterday that they would not give up. They said they believe they can compile a reasonably sized list of amendments and work through them in the next several weeks.

"It's unfinished business, and we are going to finish it for the American people," said Sen. Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican who is part of a bipartisan coalition backing the plan.

For it to pass, the White House will have to get more involved, Washington veterans say, and Bush will have to do a better job of delivering a message about why the immigration overhaul is needed -- a tall order for a president whose approval ratings are mired in the low 30s or below.

To date, Bush has left most negotiating to Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff and Commerce Secretary Carlos M. Gutierrez. Bush spokesman Scott M. Stanzel said yesterday that the president and his Cabinet secretaries "put an enormous amount of work in" on the plan and that the White House would "redouble" its efforts in the coming days.

The president began with calls yesterday to Republican Sens. Mitch McConnell, Jon Kyl and Trent Lott while flying from Poland to Italy, Stanzel said, and is "optimistic that this legislation will be brought back."

"I don't think it's too late, but I think it means you do a lot more than send your secretary of commerce up to the Capitol to walk the corridors," said Stephen Hess, a George Washington University public affairs professor.


Bush "has got to bring the Republican senators right into the White House. He has to sit down and say 'OK, what is the bill we can all agree on?'" Hess said. "He is working sort of once removed from true personal involvement in this."

As a former governor of Texas, a border state where immigrants are woven into the economy, Bush has a long-standing interest in immigration, and he embraced the compromise legislation when it was unveiled last month.

But a large part of the president's conservative base revolted -- predominantly over a provision that would give the estimated 12 million people in the country illegally a path to citizenship.

To date, Bush has not controlled the terms of the debate. Influential commentators such as Lou Dobbs on CNN and syndicated radio host Rush Limbaugh have denounced a portion of the plan that would create a "Z" visa for people who are illegally in the country, calling it amnesty for lawbreakers.

In his televised remarks to the immigration meeting last week, Bush took on those critics, saying those who were using the term "amnesty" are "just trying to, in my judgment, frighten people about the bill."

The message backfired.


Bush "attacked the base of his party," and "they basically body-slammed him," conservative commentator Patrick Buchanan said on MSNBC.

"He impugned the motives of the people who opposed it, which was a mistake," said Baker, the Rutgers professor. "The pulpit was there, but the sermon has to be eloquent, and in Bush's case it wasn't."

The president altered his tone in a weekend radio address he recorded from Europe.

"Unlike the 1986 law, this bill gives honest employers the tools they need to ensure that they are hiring legal workers -- beginning with a tamper-resistant identity card," Bush said in the address, to be broadcast today. "And unlike the 1986 law, this bill does not grant amnesty for those who are already here."

While calling immigration a priority, White House aides have been consumed of late by Iraq war discussions, and most of their recent efforts on Capitol Hill have gone toward securing emergency military funding. Last week, the administration turned its focus to international pronouncements in advance of the Group of Eight summit in Germany, where Bush spent part of the week.

He is scheduled to return from Europe on Monday night and will have a policy meeting with Republican senators Tuesday at which the White House said immigration will be discussed.


Sen. Ken Salazar, a Colorado Democrat, said it would have been "useful" if the president had weighed in himself this week.

"Unfortunately, he was out of the country," Salazar said on CNN. "Maybe when he comes back we can put Humpty Dumpty together again."