Bush Pleads for GOP Immigration Support

The Associated Press
Wednesday, June 13, 2007; 6:28 AM

WASHINGTON -- His party divided and his polls sagging, President Bush prodded rebellious Senate Republicans to help resurrect legislation that could provide eventual citizenship for millions of illegal immigrants.

"It's a highly emotional issue," said Bush after a session Tuesday in which several lawmakers bluntly told him their constituents do not trust the government to secure the nation's borders or weed out illegal workers at job sites.

To alleviate the concerns, the president said he was receptive to an emergency spending bill as a way to emphasize his administration's commitment to accelerated enforcement. One congressional official put the price tag at up to $15 billion.

"I don't think he changed any minds," conceded Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla., a supporter of the legislation. But Martinez added that the president's appearance had helped nudge "people on the fence" to be more favorably inclined.

One Republican widely viewed as a potential convert, Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, said he was not yet persuaded. "At the end of the day, I've got to be able to sit down and know myself that we are going to secure our border," he said. "Today, I do not feel that way."

Bush's trip to the Capitol marked only the second time since he became president that he attended the weekly closed-door senators lunch, a gesture that underscored the importance he places on passage of comprehensive immigration legislation.

Despite the president's commitment, many conservatives in his own party have criticized the measure as an amnesty for millions of lawbreakers. Additionally, job approval ratings in the 30-percent range make it difficult for the president to bend even Republican lawmakers to his will.

Compounding the challenge is a stream of statements from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., that it is up to Bush and the Republicans to produce enough votes to revive a measure that was sidetracked on the Senate floor last week. "We'll move on to immigration when they have their own act together," he told reporters during the day.

"Fourteen percent of the Republicans supporting the president's bill won't do the trick," he said, referring to the fact that only seven GOP senators supported a move to free the bill from limbo last week.

Several participants in the Republican meeting described the session as friendly and rancor-free, and said Bush had even made a joke at one point when addressing Sen. Jeff Sessions, the Alabama Republican who is one of the bill's fiercest critics.

One senator quoted Bush as telling Sessions: "Don't worry, I'll still go to your fundraiser. We disagree about this, but we are friends."

Sessions was among the senators to question the president, pointing to polls showing widespread opposition to the legislation. Bush responded that there are other polls that show support, according to participants. They spoke on condition of anonymity, citing confidentiality rules covering the closed-door meeting.

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