WASHINGTON — President Bush on Tuesday won crucial backing on immigration from the Senate, which rejected a call to secure the nation’s borders before tackling other concerns such as citizenship for millions of men and women in the country illegally.
But the battle over immigration was far from over. The president's victory Tuesday came on an amendment to the Senate immigration bill, but lawmakers are expected to vote on many more into next week, raising the possibility that the legislation could change significantly by then. In addition, Bush still doesn't have solid support from many House Republicans who oppose giving illegal immigrants citizenship.
Bush and his supporters are pushing a comprehensive strategy on a volatile election-year issue that has divided the Republican Party. The Senate measure provides greater border security by sending 6,000 National Guard troops to fight illegal immigration, establishes a new guest worker program and offers an eventual chance at citizenship for most of the estimated 11 million to 12 million immigrants in the country illegally.
In Tuesday's 55-40 vote, the Senate rejected an appeal by Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., to require that the border with Mexico be secured before other immigration law changes could take place.
Isakson said that anything less would amount to “a wink and a nod one more time to those who would come here” unlawfully.
But Republican and Democratic supporters of the sweeping Senate bill said Isakson’s approach would derail the approach that Bush backed in Monday’s prime-time national speech from the Oval Office. “We have to have a comprehensive approach if we’re going to gain control of the borders,” said Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass.
In all, 36 Democrats and 18 Republicans joined with one independent to torpedo the amendment. Thirty-three Republicans and seven Democrats supported it.
Eager to blunt any political fallout from opposing Isakson’s proposal, the bill’s sponsors countered with an alternative of their own. Backed by Sen. Ken Salazar, D-Colo., it said immigration changes envisioned in the legislation could proceed if the president declared they were in the national security interests of the United States. It passed, 79-16.
The Senate cast its first votes on the immigration bill as Bush renewed his call for Congress to act. “The objective is, on the one hand, protect our borders; and, on the other hand, never lose sight of the thing that makes America unique which is, we’re a land of immigrants and that we’re not going to discriminate against people,” he said at a news conference with Australian Prime Minister John Howard.
Anger among Republicans
Reaction to the president's Monday speech was generally positive toward the border enforcement initiative, but noncommittal at best on the citizenship question.
Many conservatives were angry. Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga., said the National Guard proposal “must not be coupled with a thinly veiled attempt to grant amnesty,” which is what conservatives consider Bush's proposal for a guest worker program.
A GOP aide, speaking on condition of anonymity, told NBC News that the Guard initiative was like "the shiny piece of metal on the spinner lure," and said the president has "no credibility" on this issue with conservatives.
House Majority Leader John Boehner praised the Guard proposal as a "good first step" toward border enforcement but expressed concerns about the guest worker plan.
In October, 81 House conservatives wrote Bush and insisted that any guest worker program come after passage of a border enforcement bill. Following protests across the nation by tens of thousand of immigrants and their supporters, positions have only hardened on that score.
As Bush drew continued criticism from House Republicans, the White House sought to emphasize the border security elements of the president’s plan.
At a news conference Tuesday, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and other administration officials focused on Bush’s authorization of up to 6,000 National Guard troops to states along the border with Mexico.
“This is going to be a tremendous enforcement support partnership,” U.S. Border Patrol Chief David Aguilar told reporters at the White House.
Chertoff described the proposals as “turbochargers” that would help solve an issue “that has plagued this country for over 20 years.”
The officials stressed that National Guard forces would function in support roles, leaving front-line law enforcement against illegal immigrants in the hands of federal Border Patrol agents.
The centerpiece of Bush’s speech Monday night from the Oval office was his announcement that as many as 6,000 National Guard troops would be dispatched, in coordination with governors, to states along the Mexican border to provide intelligence and surveillance support to Border Patrol agents. The Border Patrol would remain responsible for catching and detaining illegal immigrants.
“We do not yet have full control of the border, and I am determined to change that,” the president said.
Still, Bush insisted, “The United States is not going to militarize the southern border.”
While much of the advance focus on Bush’s speech was on border security, the president’s comments on possible citizenship for illegal immigrants were more explicit than earlier remarks and showed an effort to appeal to moderates and business owners who favor liberalized immigration laws.
“Some in this country argue that the solution is to deport every illegal immigrant, and that any proposal short of this amounts to amnesty. I disagree,” he said.
“It is neither wise nor realistic to round up millions of people, many with deep roots in the United States, and send them across the border. There is a rational middle ground between granting an automatic path to citizenship for every illegal immigrant, and a program of mass deportation.”
The Guard troops would mostly serve two-week stints before rotating out of the assignment, so keeping the force level at 6,000 over the course of a year could require up to 156,000 troops.
Republicans were unified in applauding that portion of the president’s speech. So, too, were Democrats, in a more limited way.
“Democrats are willing to support any reasonable plan that will secure our borders, including deploying National Guard troops,” said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill. “But Americans don’t want a plan that’s been cobbled together to win political favor.”
The Associated Press and MSNBC's Mike Viqueira contributed to this report.