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Bush May Be Out of Chances For a Lasting Domestic Victory

Aides tried to portray the defeat of the immigration legislation as a failure of Congress rather than of the president. "This is the kind of thing that frustrates the American people, that Congress was unable to come together and get something done on an issue that was clearly important to the public," said a senior official. "This is the reason why people are rejecting Washington."

White House aides bemoaned how little has been accomplished during the first six months of the Democratic Congress, noting that public approval of Congress has plummeted even lower than Bush's ratings. Unspoken in that critique was the fact that the immigration defeat was dealt largely by members of the president's party.

Still, Bush got a break from Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.). When the immigration bill stalled several weeks ago, Reid blamed Bush. But on Thursday, he gave Bush credit for trying. "The president worked hard, and so did many senators," Reid said. "But the big winner today was obstruction. The big winner today was inaction."

Bush recognizes that his time is running short. In March, he told an audience in Guatemala that he had to get an immigration bill to his desk by August to have a chance of success. After that, he reasoned, the congressional budget calendar and the presidential election campaign would make it impossible. But he and Rove remained supremely confident that they would prevail. Just 17 days ago, while in Bulgaria, Bush brushed off pessimism about the legislation. "I'll see you at the bill-signing," he predicted.

By Thursday, his tone had changed. He made no pretense that the immigration initiative might still be revived before he leaves office. Instead, he indicated that he is moving on to other issues. He would probably not admit to being humbled, but he appeared at least chagrined.

At one point during his Iraq speech, Bush pleaded for patience with Iraqis trying to pass reconciliation legislation. "In a democracy," he said, "the head of government just can't decree the outcome."

The audience laughed. Bush smiled wanly and joked: "I'm not saying that's what I'd like to do."

Staff writers Michael A. Fletcher and Michael Abramowitz in Washington contributed to this report.

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