Bush Criticized in Immigration Defeat

President Bush was partially blamed for Congress's failure to pass the immigration bill.
President Bush was partially blamed for Congress's failure to pass the immigration bill. (By Gerald Herbert -- Associated Press)
By Michael Abramowitz and Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 9, 2007

President Bush awoke in Germany yesterday to find his immigration compromise on life support and facing fresh criticism that he failed to exert the leadership needed to save what is likely to be the last major domestic agenda item of his presidency.

Although congressional aides and GOP strategists said it was unfair to blame Bush alone, the collapse of the immigration bill late Thursday was a reflection of the weakened state of his presidency. Those aides said the bill's troubles were exacerbated by Bush's deteriorating relations with congressional Republicans and his inability to combat an unexpectedly fierce attack on the bill by grass-roots conservatives.

"This is sort of what his life is going to be like for the rest of his term," veteran GOP strategist Ed Rollins said. "There are Republicans defecting from him now. He's not going to have any great success on anything that's controversial."

Administration officials said it is premature to describe as dead legislation that has been one of Bush's top priorities since the early days of his administration. They described the events that have imperiled the bill as being less about Bush's leadership and more about internal Senate dynamics. They added that they expect the bill to come back to life in the next few weeks after passions cool and Republicans and Democrats alike recognize that it is in their interest to pass a bill.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said in an interview that it is highly unfair to point fingers at Bush: "The president has been very actively engaged in this process."

"This bill is going to pass not because people say, 'I want to do a favor for the president,' " Chertoff said. "It will pass because the logic of the president has been saying" about the need for a comprehensive bill that addresses the need for both better border security and a practical solution for dealing with 12 million illegal immigrants.

To that end, White House officials ratcheted up their lobbying efforts after a week in which their focus was on the G-8 summit in Europe. Bush called senior Republicans leaders from Air Force One as he traveled from Poland to Italy, and his aides released the text of his radio address tomorrow, which is focused on immigration. Bush called on Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) to bring the bill back to the floor for a vote, saying the immigration debate "has divided too many Americans."

"We'll be continuing to make the case that immigration reform is too important to let this opportunity pass," said Joel D. Kaplan, deputy White House chief of staff. "When senators are faced with the prospect of the status quo continuing, they will become more supportive of the reforms in the bill."

Even Democrats acknowledged that saddling Bush with most of the responsibility for what happened in the Senate ignores other factors that contributed to Reid's decision to pull the bill off the floor Thursday. Some of it reflected internal Senate politics as well as the reality that immigration overhaul is one of the most inflamed public policy issues on the national agenda. Some Republicans and administration officials privately fumed about Reid's decision to pull the bill abruptly when they said a few more days of deliberations would clinch the deal.

A Republican who served Bush in the past said the president was not the principal cause of the collapse. He argued that immigration is one of the knottiest of all domestic issues, that the bill lacked a trusted GOP advocate on Capitol Hill and that some Democratic leaders were ambivalent about passing it.

But Bush has not been able to break through vehement opposition from grass-roots conservatives, which was stoked by conservative talk radio. That vocal opposition gave Republican elected officials little incentive to join with the president in supporting the bill. Even when Bush was in a stronger position politically, revising the immigration laws proved impossible. In his weakened state, his ability to convert opponents proved limited.

With Bush in Europe as the bill went down, Chertoff and Commerce Secretary Carlos M. Gutierrez were lobbying for the compromise measure, winning praise from some business advocates of the bill for their efforts. But they could not overcome the deep opposition within the Republican Party or the ill will between congressional Republicans and the White House.

Republicans said yesterday that the administration compounded its long history of poor relations with Congress by making several missteps in the debate. One, they said, was Bush's decision to lash out at conservative critics on a trip to a Border Patrol training center in Georgia. He accused opponents of "not reading the bill" and said they were attempting to frighten people with their own rhetoric.

Bush, said one veteran strategist, was attacking people who otherwise are among his most ardent supporters. "Those for him are the cultural conservatives," this strategist said. "They're not bigots."

Democratic strategist Simon Rosenberg said until the president leaves office, the prospects for bipartisan cooperation will remain slim. "The reason we have this [polarized] politics is George Bush," he said. "Not the Democratic Party or even the Republicans in Congress. The climate of this era has been set by Bush."

But Republican strategists said the Democrats share the blame for the stalemate over immigration and said it is still possible the situation could turn around. "As much as it is important for the president to prevail, it is also important for the Democratic leadership in the Senate to demonstrate accomplishments," said Kenneth M. Duberstein, a former Reagan White House chief of staff. "Immigration was clearly one area where there was bipartisanship on a key national issue. But it faltered as a result of Democratic gymnastics and the president's absence."

But Duberstein added: "I don't think yesterday's vote was the last chapter, and there is much more to follow, especially if the president shows hands-on leadership."

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