WASHINGTON — As the White House prepared for President Bush to address the nation on immigration, sources told NBC News on Friday that the Pentagon could deploy as many as 5,000 National Guard troops to the country’s southwest borders to stem the flow of illegal immigrants.
The White House said it was seeking time from television networks for the president’s remarks on Monday at 8 p.m. ET. Bush, trying to build momentum for legislation that could provide millions of illegal immigrants a chance to become American citizens, is to speak from the Oval Office.
“This is crunch time,” Tony Snow, the new White House press secretary, told reporters.
Senate passage of the legislation appears assured, but many House Republicans oppose allowing illegal immigrants now in the country a chance at citizenship. The deployment of military troops to stem the flow of more illegal immigrants could be a way to ease that opposition.
The legislation includes provisions for additional border security, a new guest worker program and eventual citizenship for many of the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the country.
Compromise in the Senate
The measure was bogged down by opposition for weeks before Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee and Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., agreed on a procedural compromise that gives the bill’s critics ample opportunity to offer amendments. It also offers assurances to Democrats that Senate negotiators will not simply capitulate to demands of House conservatives in talks on compromise legislation later in the year.
Nearly everyone except House Republicans seemed pleased.
“We congratulate the Senate on reaching agreement and we look forward to passage of a bill prior to Memorial Day,” said Dana Perino, deputy White House press secretary, said on Thursday. Reid and Frist exchanged compliments on the Senate floor, and Mexico’s foreign secretary said in a statement that the deal was a “positive step toward the approval of a migration accord.”
But many House Republicans criticized the Senate’s bill as an amnesty measure. Putting National Guard troops on the border could serve as a way to appease conservatives.
White House strategist Karl Rove met with lawmakers earlier in the week, and at least one session included a discussion about this. Some lawmakers said at the time that they expected Bush to announce border security improvements next week, possibly in a speech in Arizona or another border states.
Gov. Janet Napilitano, D-Ariz., has asked Bush and Defense Secretary Rumsfeld in the past to provide guard assistance. Rumsfeld earlier this week ordered Assistant Secretary of Defense of Homeland Security Paul McHale to review options for the National Guard and Reserve, as well as active duty forces, NBC News reported.
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Agreement about 'the money'
One Pentagon official told NBC's Jim Miklaszewski that federal involvement is primarily about money: State governors can deploy their National Guard forces whenever they see fit, but without direct involvement from the Pentagon, the states would have to pick up the tab.
The National Guard forces, if deployed to border states, would still remain under the command of the state governments.
The differences between Bush and House Republicans flared dramatically when the Senate appeared on the verge of agreement on a comprehensive immigration bill several weeks ago. Several GOP conservatives denounced the bill as an amnesty measure and Rep. Steve King of Iowa said anyone who voted for it should be “branded with a scarlet letter A.”
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., offered his view of the importance of immigrant labor: “I say let the prisoners pick the fruits.”
In political terms, Rep. J.D. Hayworth of Arizona and others said Republicans would pay a price in the midterm elections if they vote for anything like the Senate legislation. “Many of those who have stood for the Republican Party for the last decade are not only angry. They will be absent in November,” Hayworth said.
Given Bush’s recent erosion of support among conservatives, as measured in polls, there’s been no evident change in sentiment among his congressional critics.
The political calculations are different at the White House. Hispanics comprise the nation’s fastest growing minority, according to this line of reasoning, and no political party can afford to be seen as blind or even hostile to their concerns and the desire of their relatives to join them in the United States.
Bush and top House Republicans reviewed the issue last week at a private White House meeting, according to several officials, and the president urged the GOP congressional leadership to embrace his call for comprehensive legislation. That means provisions to strengthen border security, coupled with a guest worker program that — while the president doesn’t say so in public — provides a chance at citizenship for millions of illegal immigrants.
House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill. and other leaders stressed that would be a hard sell with their rank and file. Bush restated his desire for a comprehensive bill, and the leadership responded by noting the sentiment of the rank and file, according to officials familiar with the conversation. They spoke on condition of anonymity, given the private nature of the meetings.
NBC's Jim Miklaszewski, NBC's Tim Russert and The Associated Press contributed to this report.