By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 30, 2007
GLYNCO, Ga., May 29 -- President Bush lashed out at critics within his own party Tuesday, accusing Republican opponents of distorting the immigration deal he negotiated with leading congressional Democrats and playing on the politics of fear to undermine public support.
In stern tones normally reserved for the liberal opposition, Bush said conservatives fighting the immigration proposal "haven't read the bill" and oppose it in some cases because "it might make somebody else look good." Their "empty political rhetoric," he said, threatens to thwart what he called the last, best chance to fix an immigration system that all sides agree is broken.
"If you want to kill the bill, if you don't want to do what's right for America, you can pick out one little aspect out of it," he told thousands of trainees at a federal center here that prepares Border Patrol officers. "You can use it to frighten people. Or you can show leadership and solve this problem once and for all, so the people who wear the uniform in this crowd can do the job we expect them to do."
The president's rhetoric underscored the bitter crossfire among Republicans over immigration and the enormous challenge Bush faces in trying to rally his party behind what may be the most significant domestic initiative left in his presidency. The White House has been pressing conservatives to fall in line, sending emissaries to meet with lawmakers and activists, but many on Capitol Hill and on the presidential campaign trail have ignored the administration's pleadings and rushed to denounce the deal.
Although the proposal has the support of key Democrats, most notably Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (Mass.), the White House recognizes that the chances of pushing it through depend on winning enough Republican support. Bush's trip to Georgia opened a campaign intended to undercut the criticism that has consumed conservative talk shows and Web sites and to educate the public about a complicated bill.
But conservatives bristled at his remarks. "I don't think name-calling does any good at this point," said David A. Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union. "What they've done from the very beginning is say, 'This is the way we want it done, and anyone who disagrees with us is outside the mainstream.' . . . It's been badly handled. They'll be lucky, given the attitudes in the country, to come up with anything."
Brian Darling, an analyst at the Heritage Foundation, said he and his colleagues not only have read the bill but also have posted it on the think tank's Web site. "Most conservatives have very strong feelings that this bill contains amnesty . . . and no yelling and screaming by the administration is going to change our minds," he said.
As for the charge of scare tactics, Darling said: "Honestly, I really think people should be frightened. This bill would be the most dramatic change to immigration law in 40 years, and no one seems to understand what's in the bill. . . . The American people should be frightened by the closed-door process that was used and by the ramifications."
The proposal would require that thousands more Border Patrol agents be hired and hundreds of miles of fencing along the frontier with Mexico be erected. After the government made progress in meeting those goals, in theory as soon as 18 months, the legislation would introduce a guest-worker program, allowing some immigrants into the country temporarily. And it would provide the 12 million illlegal immigrants a chance to earn legal status if they have jobs, pass a criminal background check and pay a fine, and eventually gain even permanent residency if they pay a steeper penalty, learn English and return home first.
The essence of the debate among Republicans centers on whether that constitutes amnesty, as critics maintain. Bush insists it does not because the illegal immigrants would have to pay for their actions first. "This bill is not an amnesty bill," he said in his speech here. "If you want to scare the American people, what you say is 'The bill's an amnesty bill.' It's not an amnesty bill. That's empty political rhetoric trying to frighten our fellow citizens."
Bush's speech at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center was his fullest defense of the immigration deal since it was reached two weeks ago, and his tone was striking. Although he did not single out whom he had in mind as he complained about scare tactics, the criticism he sought to rebut was that coming from his own party.
"I'm sure you've heard some of the talk out there about people defining the bill," he said in front of a huge U.S. flag and "Strengthen Our Borders" banners. "It's clear they haven't read the bill. They're speculating about what the bill says and they're trying to rile up people's emotions. This is a good piece of legislation."
For support, he brought with him two Cabinet secretaries and two senators, highlighting in particular Commerce Secretary Carlos M. Gutierrez and Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.), both of whom were born in Cuba and emigrated to the United States. "I want to mention those two men," Bush said, "because to me they represent what the immigration debate is all about -- will we be a welcoming place, a place of law that renews our spirit by giving people a chance to succeed?"
Yet the text and setting were intended to emphasize not the welcoming but the tough elements of the plan, challenging the perception that the government has not done enough to crack down on illegal border crossings and employment of undocumented immigrants. The federal center here trains officers from 83 law enforcement agencies, including the Border Patrol, and Bush toured a mock land border crossing and a mock airport passport-control station.
For the benefit of cameras, he handed fake documents to a uniformed officer, who greeted him with "Welcome to the United States, sir." The trainee then asked him questions and received answers before fingerprinting and photographing the president and finally stamping his documents.
Bush said previously that he knows he needs to get an immigration bill to his desk by August, before the 2008 presidential campaign would make it too hard to get a measure approved.
In recognition of that uphill fight, he used the word "courage" six times to describe what would be required for lawmakers to vote for his plan. And it was a measure of Bush's problems within his own party that the strongest voice of support he received Tuesday came from Kennedy, the arch-liberal and bête noire of American conservatism.
"The president is right that this bill is our best chance to fix our broken system," Kennedy said in a statement. He added: "Despite the clear urgency, there are forces at play that could hinder our efforts: bumper sticker slogans that aim to divide us further, strong feelings on the many sides of this issue, and a tendency to shelve these tough issues for another time."