Chertoff Emerges as Linchpin

By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 23, 2007

As senators unveiled a proposed immigration overhaul last week, many said they received an unexpected escort toward compromise from Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff.

"He was the sherpa that guided us through the maze of how the law was broken," said supporter Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.). "His role in this was indispensable in many ways."

The bill's sponsor, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), said Chertoff's "mastery of the issues and determination to reach compromises really made this agreement possible."

At a time when the Bush administration's credibility with Congress is severely strained over differences on Iraq and embattled Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, Chertoff's standing on Capitol Hill is on the rise, members of both parties said.

However fleeting -- and the fate of the immigration bill is far from clear -- the domestic security czar's emergence as a trusted player behind the scenes of one of this year's most difficult issues is striking for a White House that has enjoyed few big legislative victories or high-profile Cabinet successes.

Chertoff has gained that status by vouching for the performance of immigration agencies viewed as some of the most dysfunctional in government, just two years after DHS's botched response to Hurricane Katrina.

"His biggest contribution was giving us confidence in terms of how the new program would work," said Graham. "He provided the bricks we used to build this wall."

In an interview, Chertoff credited "intense, personal participation" with senators by Commerce Secretary Carlos M. Gutierrez, Bush deputy chief of staff Joel D. Kaplan and domestic policy adviser Karl Zinsmeister.

"This was unique. You had two secretaries putting enormous care into this. The president was very deeply engaged in this," Chertoff said. "It is very, very important that they can trust you, that you build trust in working together. . . . That's been a great lesson to me looking over the last two years."

Chertoff also warned critics that while the deal could be fine-tuned, it was crafted to leave them with no alternatives if they want to change the system.

"This is the sweet spot," he said. "Efforts to blow up one part are going to blow up the whole deal. . . . People who think they can in the end turn this radically to the left or right are going to find there's no space there."

That combination of credibility and calculation was cited by senators, aides, lobbyists and immigration analysts. They said Chertoff, a former federal appeals court judge and Justice Department official, helped broker months of talks, checking details and presenting policy options based on the real-world capabilities of U.S. agencies at the border and in the workplace.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2007 The Washington Post Company