By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 13, 2007
In a rare visit to Capitol Hill, President Bush pressed Republican senators yesterday to resurrect the compromise overhaul of the nation's immigration laws, but many of the senators instead demanded that his administration first show a more determined commitment to border security.
The visit was the first time in five years that Bush had come to the Capitol for the Republican senators' weekly policy luncheon. He and senior administration officials painted the meeting -- coming five days after the collapse on the Senate floor of the tenuous compromise on immigration -- as a rescue session. Bush made an impassioned plea for the legislation, saying "the status quo is unacceptable."
"Now is the time to move a comprehensive bill that enforces our borders and has good workplace enforcement, that doesn't grant automatic citizenship, that addresses this problem in a comprehensive way," he said after the lunch.
Although senators described the meeting as cordial, even jovial, they also said the president's efforts to rally GOP support did not win any converts. "We're off the bill. We ought to stay off the bill for a while," said Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), one of the bill's sternest critics.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) marveled at the president's passion and commitment. But, he added: "We didn't expect anyone to stand up and holler that they had an epiphany."
And, apparently, nobody did.
"We . . . have lost credibility in Washington on the issue, and I think before the American people will really ever get behind an immigration policy, they're going to have to feel that Washington is truly going to follow through on what it says," said Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.).
The last time Bush attended a Tuesday policy lunch, another domestic priority was in deep trouble. His signature No Child Left Behind education measure was under assault by conservatives, who were demanding the inclusion of a provision to allow states to opt out of its strictures on testing and curriculum. At that time, a leader of the revolt was one Rep. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.).
Now in the Senate, DeMint is again accusing Bush of straying from conservative principles.
"The president was determined to pass No Child Left Behind. He's determined to pass this immigration bill, and he's willing to come up here and work it," DeMint said. "I admire that. He's going to fight."
Much of the conversation revolved around steps Bush could take now to convince the public that his administration is serious about border security laws already in the books. Georgia's senators, Republicans Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson, appealed to Bush to quickly send over a multibillion dollar emergency funding request not only for the border security provisions in the pending bill, such as for global positioning radars and unmanned aerial vehicles, but also for the detention beds, border fencing and vehicle barriers approved last year. The provisions in this year's bill alone would cost $6.2 billion. The total would be $10 billion to $15 billion, GOP aides said.
"A lot of the problems we're facing now come from a low level of confidence in the Congress and a low level of confidence in the administration," said Isakson, who was part of the immigration deal but now favors an enforcement-only approach. "Sometimes you have to put the left foot in front of the right foot and back again to start to walk forward before you run."
Nine other Republican senators delivered a letter to the president, suggesting that a push to secure the borders could yield political dividends for a future bill.
"We respectfully ask that your Administration enforce the border security laws that have already been authorized by Congress regardless of whether the Senate passes the immigration reform bill," the letter said. "Securing the border is the best way to restore trust with the American people and facilitate future improvements of our immigration policy."
Bush did not indicate whether he would request more money or change his border policies. Instead, he used charm to try to disarm his opponents. He told Sessions, for instance, that he plans to show up at a political fundraiser for him, despite the senator's dogged stance against his immigration policies.
Cabinet officials were not so polite. As Bush was meeting with senators, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff adamantly defended the administration's record on border security. His department is on track to hire 18,000 additional Border Patrol agents and complete 370 miles of fencing along the southern border by the end of next year, he said. He added that a series of workplace raids in recent weeks has yielded more controversy among immigrant rights groups than praise from conservative critics.
Yesterday, federal agents raided the offices of a food-processing plant in Oregon, placing about 100 workers under administrative arrest for possible deportation.
But, Chertoff said, a broader crackdown on illegal immigration "is a hostage" to Senate intransigence.
The beleaguered immigration bill contains authorization for a computerized employment verification system that is crucial to stopping the hiring of undocumented workers, he said. He noted that because 40 percent of illegal immigrants come in legally but overstay their visas, no amount of border security could stem that tide.
"The biggest help I could give to our guys on the border is attacking interior enforcement and the magnet that draws people here," Chertoff said. "And that is a hostage to this bill."