Sunday, June 25, 2006

Doomed Immigration Bill Makes Twice In Two Years Bush Failed To Drive Major Domestic Plans Through Friendly GOP Congress

The New York Times
Bush's Immigration Plan Stalled as House G.O.P. Grew More Anxious

This article is by Adam Nagourney, Carl Hulse and Jim Rutenberg.

WASHINGTON, June 24 — For the White House, the Congressional picnic last week seemed like the perfect setting to mend strained relations with Republican allies on Capitol Hill: President Bush and his advisers eating taquitos and Mexican confetti rice on the lawn of the White House with Republican Congressional leaders.

But moments before Mr. Bush was to welcome his guests, Speaker J. Dennis Hastert told the president that House Republicans were effectively sidelining — and in the view of some Congressional aides probably killing — what had become Mr. Bush's signature domestic initiative of the year: an overhaul of the nation's immigration laws.

That disappointing news for Mr. Bush signaled the apparent collapse of a carefully orchestrated White House strategy to push a compromise immigration bill through Congress this summer — and in the process invigorate Mr. Bush's second term with a badly needed domestic victory.

The decision by the House leadership to defy the president after he had put so much prestige on the line — including a rare prime-time Oval Office speech for a domestic initiative — amounted to a clear rebuke of the president on an issue that he has long held dear.

An account of the administration's push for the initiative, based on interviews with members of Congress and senior White House and Congressional officials, shows that Mr. Bush's immigration measure was derailed by an overly optimistic assessment by the White House of the prospects for building a bipartisan coalition in support of the bill. It was also hurt by a fundamental misreading of the depth of hostility to the measure among House Republicans.

It was undone as well, White House and Congressional leaders acknowledged, by a sharp division over whether to focus on the short term or on the party's long-term political prospects. Mr. Bush's aides saw the House bill, which would make it a felony to live in this country illegally and would close off any chance to win legal status, as a threat to their attempts to broaden the party's appeal to Hispanic voters.

House Republican leaders saw Mr. Bush's approach — calling for tougher enforcement as well as avenues to legalize the illegal workforce and create a possible path to citizenship — as a threat to House Republicans already fearful of losing control of this fall's elections by angering voters who viewed the plan as amnesty.

Mr. Bush's first attempt to advocate for the measure was described even by allies as initially muddled and tentative, permitting opponents to build a case against it before he made his Oval Office address. Republicans' apprehensions were cemented in June, when, in a special election for a vacant Congressional seat in California, Brian P. Bilbray, who ran on a pledge to build a fence along the border with Mexico, was elected after running against the president's position on immigration.

Coming in the same week that the White House showed effectiveness in rallying Republicans behind the war in Iraq, the setback raised questions about Mr. Bush's chances to achieve major domestic victories from a solidly Republican Congress. Unless a compromise is reached, it will mark the second time in two years, after Social Security in 2005, that Mr. Bush has failed to steer his major domestic initiative through the friendly terrain of a Republican Congress.

"This immigration legislation is very important, and if he doesn't get something in his administration, it will hurt his legacy domestically," said James A. Thurber, a presidential scholar at American University.

White House officials said they could point to several areas of progress in Congress — on extending tax cuts, pushing a line-item veto and overhauling the pension system. They said that they were under no illusions about the difficulties facing the immigration plan, but that it would never have gotten this far without the president, who will keep pushing for it. Aides say it is still possible to reach a compromise after the November elections, if not before. "We believe by being patient and sticking with it, in time people are going to be pretty happy with what the president proposes," said Tony Snow, the White House spokesman.

But several analysts were skeptical, noting that in just the past week a Republican candidate for governor in Arizona called for building prison camps for illegal immigrants. And the first campaign advertisement for Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, who many believe is the most endangered Republican in the Senate, featured him talking about stringent border measures.

From the start of the year, after House Republicans passed a tough immigration measure that Mr. Bush's political advisers worried would undercut their effort to appeal to Hispanic voters, the White House tentatively pushed a more moderate, "comprehensive" bill that was gathering support in the Senate.

But Mr. Bush was criticized by both sides as not taking a public stand on specifics and permitting conservative members of the House to define the debate. Aides said the president was trying to stay above the discussion to remain flexible enough to broker a compromise.

Senator Arlen Specter, Republican of Pennsylvania, said that in one strategy session Mr. Bush told the senator he could not be identified as publicly supporting the Senate bill, which sought to tighten border control but also give illegal immigrants a chance to become citizens after paying fines. "Don't quote me, Arlen," Mr. Specter recalled the president saying, implying that Mr. Bush had spoken approvingly of the bill.

In April, Mr. Bush brought Joshua B. Bolten on as the new chief of staff, shaking up a White House that had been criticized as adrift. With a new team in charge, Mr. Bush took a more forceful stand, using the issue as a way to reassert his leadership. In a speech televised in prime time, he supported the enforcement measures advocated by conservatives and called for sending National Guard troops to the border, but he also said that some illegal immigrants should be allowed legal status.

White House officials now credit Mr. Bush's address with providing impetus for passage of a compromise bill by the Senate that had earlier faltered, opening the door for a final compromise with the House, in a process that now hangs in the balance. Some officials privately had said failure to produce compromise before Congress's summer break would seriously hinder their effort.

But House Republicans said they never stopped pressing the case to the White House that the bill was a political disaster for endangered incumbents, and they were baffled at what they said was the failure of Mr. Bush's aides to appreciate their conviction.

One lawmaker said House Republicans who had attended two closed-door briefings on the issue by the White House deputy chief of staff, Karl Rove, and others, kept waiting for the administration to reverse their concerns that passing the bill would hurt Republicans; in the lawmakers' view, the administration never made a convincing case.

White House aides said Republicans had overestimated the bill's political liabilities and underestimated the long-term damage it could do to the party if Republicans were identified among Hispanics as anti-immigrant. "This is a bad trajectory for the Republican Party right now," said a senior Republican official who was granted anonymity to discuss the unusual friction in the Republican ranks.

Positions hardened when lawmakers went home for recess at the end of May and were confronted by constituents agitated over the issue. They returned to Washington to the news that Mr. Bilbray had narrowly won the seat vacated by Randy Cunningham, a Republican now jailed after a corruption scandal.

When House Republicans met for a conference that Wednesday, conservative members seized on the Bilbray victory as vindication of their argument that embracing the Senate and White House position would be poison in the fall elections, according to one participant in the meeting who was granted anonymity because the meetings were private.

Mr. Hastert and the House majority leader, John A. Boehner, told Mr. Bush in the Oval Office that the already long odds for passage of an immigration bill before the summer break had faded even more. But, aides said, the president, who has been concerned about the issue since his days as governor of Texas, where immigration is an important political and cultural issue, responded that he would not let up.

Over the next few days, Representative Thomas M. Reynolds of New York, the head of the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee, went to Mr. Boehner and Mr. Hastert and, using polling data and pointing to what he described as politically implausible sections of the bill, warned of the consequences of enactment of the Senate legislation.

"Reynolds made clear to the leaders that the House had already staked out its position, and from a political standpoint it would be irresponsible to accept a bill that was much different," said Carl Forti, his communications director. He said Mr. Reynolds had told House leaders that supporting the bill would be "suicide for some of our members."

The White House and its supporters pointed to a poll that found strong support among Republican voters for a bill that allowed illegal immigrants to "earn" legal status. And senior White House aides argued that fellow party members were over-interpreting the meaning of Mr. Bilbray's victory in a traditionally solid Republican area. "We're happy he won," Mr. Snow said Friday. "But he barely got 50 percent."

When Mr. Hastert announced that he was postponing action on the bill until after a series of hearings around the country, the White House described the delay as temporary.

But in the Senate, the reaction to the House move was quite different.

"Thank God for the House," said a senior Senate Republican strategist, who was granted anonymity in order to discuss the party's concerns about the debate.