By Jonathan Weisman and Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, June 12, 2007
For the first time in five years, President Bush will attend the Senate Republicans' weekly policy lunch today as he pushes to revive his moribund overhaul of the nation's immigration laws.
But even before he set foot in the Capitol, several Republican senators issued a terse warning yesterday: Don't expect much.
In the days after the broad compromise on immigration collapsed on Thursday, opposition, if anything, appears to have hardened among some senators who had once been willing to consider the deal. The bill's vociferous critics have also had a long weekend to throw dirt on its grave.
Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) continued yesterday to urge Bush to deepen his involvement in the fight for the legislation. Reid sent a letter to the White House saying that "it will take stronger leadership by you to ensure that opponents of the bill do not block the path to final passage."
But those opponents said Reid was simply goading the president, setting Bush up to take full responsibility for the measure's defeat.
"It's a political thing," said Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), an ardent opponent of the immigration bill. "They want the blame for pushing this unpopular bill to fall on President Bush. . . . It makes him look weaker, and it separates him from a substantial majority of Republicans."
Republicans who have been somewhat more supportive say Bush's renewed effort is not likely to change any positions.
"We're pleased to have the president up here, but it's no secret to us that he would like the bill to pass," cautioned Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.). "Most senators have pretty well made up their minds."
"We respect the president, and I will listen carefully to him," said Sen. Lamar Alexander (Tenn.). "But we all have our own minds on this subject."
The rescue mission that Bush is embarking on may well be too little, too late. Reid said yesterday that he is willing to bring the immigration bill back to the Senate floor after passage of a major energy bill, probably late next week. But he wants an agreement to limit the amendments to be considered and the time for debate, which would take unanimous consent. A single senator could thwart that demand, and Sessions suggested that opponents of the bill are not about to agree to those conditions, no matter how hard Bush pushes.
Without unanimity, any move to bring the bill to a final vote would take at least five days. The architects of the plan are confident that with 60 firm votes lined up to block any filibusters, Reid would have no choice but to make good on his pledge to try again.
But Reid has made it clear that he would rather dedicate the remaining days on the Senate's calendar to addressing issues considered more pressing by the Democratic base, particularly soaring energy costs and the war in Iraq. After the July 4 recess, the Senate will have only a few weeks to plow through 11 critical spending bills before the August recess.
As Bush made his way back from Europe yesterday, he did his best to sound upbeat.
"The political process sometimes isn't pretty to look at it; there's two steps forward, one step back," he said in Bulgaria. "We made two steps forward on immigration, we took a step back, and now I'm going to work with those who are focused on getting an immigration bill done and start taking some steps forward again."
He concluded: "I'll see you at the bill-signing."
Working against him are approval ratings near historic lows and some Republicans' desire to distance themselves from him, especially on an issue in which they can outflank him on the right.
Senators who voted Thursday against cutting off debate on the bill said they heard nothing but praise for sustaining the filibuster. After appearing with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) at the bill's introduction last month, Georgia's senators, Republicans Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson, released a statement after its collapse, saying: "Immigration bill not good enough for Georgia."
"Republicans can never successfully distance themselves from the leader of their party," said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), a backer of the bill. "To try to be too cute by half and disagree with him on a particular issue without a viable alternative is a political risk to us all."
White House officials said they will work with GOP senators on developing a discrete set of amendments, with the hope that Kennedy and others would prevail on Reid to allow debate to begin again.
"We believe it is just a matter of time before we get it back on the floor," Commerce Secretary Carlos M. Gutierrez said in an interview. The president "will continue to exert very strong leadership," he said. "We are as determined as ever."
Flying back from Europe yesterday, Bush placed calls to three of the deal's architects -- Kennedy, Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) and Sen. Ken Salazar (D-Colo.) -- to discuss the legislation, according to White House communications chief Kevin F. Sullivan.
Sullivan said the president will also discuss the issue with business allies on Thursday.
"It just feels like we're closer than you might think," he said.
Privately, White House officials are continuing to pressure Reid, saying that it is the majority leader, not the president, who controls what happens on the Senate floor and ridiculing his decision to move to debate over confidence in Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales.
"I, frankly, find it interesting that a so-called important subject they need to get to would be to pass a political resolution on my attorney general that's going to have no bearing on whether he serves in office or not," Bush said.
But Sessions counseled the president to give the issue a rest.
"Let this thing cool down and come up with a real enforceable system that will reduce illegality," he said. "I don't see any groundswell for this to come back up."