By Jim VandeHei and Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, April 25, 2006
IRVINE, Calif., April 24 -- Under pressure from Republicans to play a bigger role in the immigration debate, President Bush will begin meeting key lawmakers Tuesday to help forge a bipartisan agreement by Memorial Day to offer some undocumented workers a path to citizenship.
But White House aides emphasized that Bush has no intention for now of staking clear legislative positions on the immigration bill. He does not want to embrace a proposal, only to see it lose once House and Senate negotiators try to reach a final agreement, whose prospects are still seen as remote on Capitol Hill.
For a president eager to show he still wields power in Washington, the immigration issue is looming ever larger. Beyond a few smaller energy and science proposals, legislation to tighten the nation's borders, address the 12 million illegal immigrants already here and offer new avenues for legal employment for immigrants may be the only major domestic initiative still attainable for Bush this year.
Speaking here to the Orange County Business Council, in a region where the competing arguments about immigration are in constant tension, Bush rebuked those who believe the answer is sending illegal immigrants back home.
"Massive deportation of the people here is unrealistic. It's just not going to work," Bush said, while anti-immigration demonstrators chanted outside the hotel. "You can hear people out there hollering it's going to work. It's not going to work."
As Bush's comments suggested, the issue has left his party deeply divided between conservatives who favor a bill that only clamps down on illegal immigration, and others who believe any immigration legislation must maintain a supply of low-cost labor for an economy dependent on it. A compromise forged in the Senate this month is locked in a procedural stalemate, even though it appears a clear bipartisan majority supports it.
"The president . . . has to get involved in immigration right now," said Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), an architect of the compromise.
But beyond general calls for a comprehensive approach to the immigration issue, Bush has refused to say exactly what he wants in a bill. In his speech to the business council, he again stopped short of endorsing a particular bill. Instead, he spoke favorably of components of the middle-of-the-road approach that Specter and the bipartisan group of senators are pursuing.
The president called the Senate group's idea of allowing illegal immigrants an easier path to citizenship the longer they have been here an "interesting approach" that Congress must debate. Work visas should be temporary, he said, but "the definition of temporary will be decided in halls of Congress."
To Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), a co-author of the compromise, Bush's statements amounted to an endorsement of the bill at a critical time. Other Democrats -- and many Republicans -- were not so sure.
"I had hoped that the president would finally weigh in and exert some leadership, but that did not happen again today," said House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.).
A senior aide said Bush -- after private discussions with Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) -- is trying to push Republicans for a compromise before Memorial Day that does not alienate either his party's conservative base or the fast-growing Latino community.
Tuesday's meeting will be heavy on senators favoring the Senate compromise, including Frist, Specter and John McCain (R-Ariz.), Mel Martinez (R-Fla.), Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), Kennedy, Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.).
Of those invited, only Senate Majority Whip Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has not endorsed the plan. In contrast, its most vociferous opponents, including Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), will not be there.
But Bush is resisting pressure from members to take the lead hands-on role in cementing a congressional compromise, aides said. The White House first wants to see if the Senate can strike a bipartisan agreement on its own. Bush does not want to be seen as interjecting himself prematurely while the legislative debate remains fluid.
Bush's strategy, said aides, is to press for a Senate deal and step up his personal involvement to get the House to agree to its parameters. Many House leaders, including Hastert, have told Bush they are open to softening the bill they passed in December and allowing illegal immigrants a road to citizenship, as long as it includes stiff financial penalties and back taxes for illegal immigrants who seek lawful work papers, and strong border enforcement. White House advisers see the debate playing out like previous ones over Medicare and tax cuts, in which Bush allows Congress a lot of leeway and then comes in at the end to help secure a deal -- and claim credit.
White House officials consider the next few months critical to Bush's domestic agenda. With the budget season in full swing, Congress will also consider new spending for math and science training and other components of the president's "competitiveness initiative," a centerpiece of Bush's 2006 wish list.
The House and Senate will also debate Bush-backed plans to provide new incentives for production and use of domestic fuel sources such as ethanol and hydrogen. The energy debate is moving to the top of the agenda with gasoline prices expected to hold at $3 or more per gallon throughout the summer.
White House aides are scrambling to find new proposals to hold down gas prices and deflect criticism that Bush is doing little to ease consumer pain at the pump. Bush plans to put increasing pressure on companies to prove they are not colluding to drive up prices, though Republican aides concede the move is mostly cosmetic.
All of this must be done with an eye toward holding down overall government spending. Conservative activists have told top officials the chief concern of many Republican voters is not the war or even the rash of scandals but the growth of government under Bush.
A key part of the Bush political recovery plan, which aides hope will result in what they jokingly call a "Bolten bounce," is persuading the Republican Congress to cut spending before the August congressional recess. New White House Chief of Staff Joshua B. Bolten has told aides he hopes the addition of former congressman Rob Portman as head of the budget office and other forthcoming changes will help facilitate a willingness to make tough budget cuts.
One key congressional aide will not be leaving, according to White House sources: Candida Perotti Wolff, the head of the legislative affairs office. At a morning meet with top aides, Bolten said that he has full confidence in Wolff and that she will be staying, the sources said. Bolten also reaffirmed his support for White House counsel Harriet Miers, the sources said.
Still, the budget-cutting efforts may prove difficult -- Congress has already rejected Bush's call for trimming entitlement spending. Worried about conservatives sitting out the November elections to protest spending, White House and top congressional officials are planning a summer push for legislation on abortion, same-sex marriage and stem cell research to excite social conservatives. After losing control over policy as part of the White House shake-up, Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove is expected to focus intensely on maximizing voter turnout, as he did in the 2004 presidential race.
Weisman reported from Washington.