WASHINGTON — President Bush pressed divided Republicans on Tuesday to support him on immigration overhaul, saying "status quo is unacceptable."
The president, in a rare visit to the Capitol, told reporters after a luncheon with the Senate GOP membership that he recognized that immigration was an emotional issue and that many do not agree with him. Still, he said, "Now is the time to get it done."
Bush mounted a personal effort to salvage his derailed immigration bill, as key lawmakers reached for a deal that could quickly revive the measure. He needs to change enough minds among GOP senators to push through a top domestic priority.
The measure, which legalizes up to 12 million unlawful immigrants and tightens border security, stalled last week in the face of broad Republican opposition.
Before lunch with the Senate GOP membership, Bush met with top Senate Republican leaders. With him from the White House were Vice President Dick Cheney, presidential adviser Karl Rove and chief of staff Josh Bolten.
White House optimism
"We think that there really is a strong base of support here," said White House press secretary Tony Snow.
"We do understand that there are some within the Republican Party who are opposed and who will not support the president, but we also understand that there are quite a number of Republicans who agree with the baseline principles," Snow told reporters.
Snow said these included "doing something serious, tangible and credible on border security."
Earlier, Snow said on NBC's "Today" show that, "We not only have a good sound bill, but it's also one that a lot of conservatives, when they get a chance to look at it, will say OK."
Behind the scenes, architects of the bill were negotiating to bring the measure back to the floor. They were working to agree on a limited list of changes sought by both parties that could be considered to pave the way for a final vote that could come before July 4th.
"Like the president, many of us are very determined to get the job done and get it done now," Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, the lead Democratic negotiator, said in a statement.
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Tuesday's lunch was the president's latest and most overt attempt to sell Congress on the immigration overhaul, which was shaped by his views and drafted by an unlikely liberal-to-conservative coalition in close consultation with two Cabinet secretaries.
"I'll see you at the bill signing," Bush predicted Monday.
He faced intense opposition, however, from GOP conservatives. Republican backers of the bill have urged the president to scale back his salesmanship effort and instead use the lunch to listen to senators' concerns, according to a senior official who spoke on condition of anonymity because the conversations were private.
Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., told CNN Tuesday that Bush "needs to help us write a better bill and not push a bill that so many of us cannot support."
He was one of nine senators who wrote Bush on Tuesday calling on him to enforce border laws regardless of the fate of his immigration measure.
Across the Capitol, Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., said the Senate measure should be scrapped in favor of one that would not grant legalization to unlawful immigrants.
"Mr. President, amnesty is not the answer," Pence said in a statement.
Pressure on the president
The measure exposes deep divisions among both parties, but it was Republicans who stood in its way last week when all but seven of them blocked a Democratic effort to put it on a fast track to passage. Video: Bush presses GOP
Senate Democratic leaders have written Bush saying it is up to him to lean on Republicans to back the measure.
"It will take stronger leadership by you to ensure the opponents of the bill do not block its path forward," the letter said. "Simply put, we need many more than seven Republicans" to support the bill.
Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said he will bring up the measure again if Democrats can be assured of more Republican backing.
It's unclear how much influence Bush has among Republicans on immigration, given that it has sparked a backlash among some of the party's core supporters, who see it as amnesty for people who sneaked into the country.
Appearing Tuesday on CBS's "The Early Show," Snow said, "I think what you're going to find is that Senate Republicans are going to put together a package of amendments and present them to Democrats and say, 'This is what we want to debate.' "
Said Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., a key sponsor of the bill: "I think the president understands that really is our last best hope."
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