By DAVID ESPO
The Associated Press
Wednesday, April 26, 2006; 9:22 PM
WASHINGTON -- President Bush generally favors plans to give millions of illegal immigrants a chance at U.S. citizenship without leaving the country, but does not want to be more publicly supportive because of opposition among conservative House Republicans, according to senators who attended a recent White House meeting.
Several officials familiar with the meeting also said Democrats protested radio commercials that blamed them for Republican-written legislation that passed the House and would make illegal immigrants vulnerable to felony charges.
Bush said he was unfamiliar with the ads, which were financed by the Republican National Committee, according to officials familiar with the discussions.
At another point, Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada and other members of his party pressed the president about their concern that any Senate-passed bill would be made unpalatable in final talks with the House.
Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the second-ranking Democrat, said the lawmaker who would lead House negotiators, House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner, had been "intractable" in negotiations on other high-profile bills in the past. Bush did not directly respond to the remark, officials said.
The Republican and Democratic officials who described the conversation did so Wednesday on condition of anonymity, saying they had not been authorized to disclose details.
Bush convened the session to give momentum to the drive for election-year immigration legislation, a contentious issue that has triggered large street demonstrations and produced divisions in both political parties. Senators of both parties emerged from the session praising the president's involvement and said the timetable was achievable.
"Yes, he thinks people should be given a path to citizenship," said Sen. Mel Martinez., R-Fla., a leading supporter of immigration legislation in the Senate.
Martinez said it was implicit in Bush's remarks that many of the immigrants illegally in the U.S. would be permitted to remain during a lengthy wait and application period.
Under the Senate bill, immigrants in the U.S. longer than five years could apply for citizenship without leaving the country. Those in the U.S. for more than two years but fewer than five would be required to go to a border point of entry, but they could return quickly as legal temporary workers.
Several senators said Bush had spoken in favorable terms about the overall bill, but made it clear he will not issue an endorsement.
"I understand that he wants to maintain latitude as he heads into negotiations with the House," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. He attended the meeting and is a strong proponent of legislation that would allow most of the 11 million illegal immigrants eventually to apply for citizenship.
But Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., said that raised the question of "how much leverage he (Bush) has over House Republicans at this stage on a volatile issue that is rattling up his (political) base."
Asked about the meeting, White House press secretary Scott McClellan said the president repeated to the senators what he has said in public. "The agreement that was reached by the bipartisan group of senators is a vehicle to get comprehensive reform moving ahead" and into compromise talks, McClellan said.
The president has spoken repeatedly in favor of legislation that includes stronger border protection and a guest worker program, but has been vague on specifics.
On Monday, Bush said "massive deportation isn't going to work," and that the Senate "had an interesting approach by saying that if you'd been here for five years or less, you're treated one way, and five years or more, you're treated another."
Bush did not mention that measure would allow millions of illegal immigrants to remain in the U.S. while waiting for citizenship _ a provision sharply criticized by some conservative lawmakers.
The House approved border security legislation last year that does not address the fate of illegal immigrants. Several Republican conservatives have criticized the Senate bill, saying it was little more than amnesty for lawbreakers.
Several officials said Bush sidestepped one issue during the meeting: the legal status of immigrants who have broken no law except by remaining in the United States.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., pushed Bush on the issue, noting that Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., has said the White House wanted the House-passed bill to make illegal immigrants subject to misdemeanor prosecution.