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Immigration can make or break Bush base

NBC  News’ Washington bureau chief and host of "Meet the Press" discusses the politics of immigration legislation.

MSNBC:  Tim, what happened in the U.S. Senate this week?  All of a sudden, the Senate immigration bill, which was lacking of nearly anything smacking of enforcement now has provisions for a fence and even provisions for making English the national language in America.

Tim Russert:  President George W. Bush has said he has to find a “rationale middle ground” and that’s what we’re seeing played out in the Senate.  The Senators are walking very, very carefully on these issues.  They’re trying to find a comprehensive solution that deals with the border situation, guest workers, the status of the 11 million illegal immigrants and it’s hard.

The president has a revolt going on with his own party at a time when his poll numbers are already low.

Mr. Bush is going to have to spend every bit of political capital he has left on his own party!  That’s where the major differences are – within his own party.  And that may cause him even more grief within those poll numbers and within his conservative base.

This is a difficult issue to get your arms around.  That’s why it hasn’t been done thus far. 

MSNBC:  In his prime time speech this past week, the notion of a border fence was not mentioned.  Then, Thursday, visiting the Arizona-Mexico border, he’s for it.

Russert:  That idea has left the station.  He originally did not want to embrace that concept, but he realizes that in order to reinforce his credentials for being a “hard-liner” on border control, some form of fence will be built.  He’s hoping his support of that will give him credibility as he tries to deal with the 11 million illegal immigrants who are here.  He does not want a mass deportation; he wants a path to citizenship.

MSNBC:  In addition to increased border security and a guest worker program for immigrants, the Senate also approved a measure making English the national language - not making it the “official” language, but the “national” language.  Then the Senate approved a slightly weaker, less-binding alternative, declaring English “common and unifying”.  What’s up here?

Russert:  It is fascinating watching legislation being made or created.  It looks like there’re going to be major differences between the Senate version and the House version. And the president, because the Republicans control both houses of Congress, is going to have to play a huge leadership role on a very emotional issue.

MSNBC:  If you look at the Senate, you can say the president seems to be making some progress.  But is that the case in the House?

Russert:  Members of the House have been very outspoken.  Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-WI, saying, “The president doesn’t get it” his views on immigration will not be come law.

It’s going to be a real crunch time when this bill comes to the conference committee and it’s time to hammer out differences between the Senate and the House.

MSNBC:  Is there still a chance we’ll end up with no legislation on this issue?

Russert:  Absolutely.  They may not be able to reconcile their differences.  The president is going to have to roll up his sleeves, and jump into the middle of it these negotiations.

Here’s his problem.  He’s down to a 35% approval rating.  His views on immigration could further alienate his political bases.

The White House advisors are saying, if he gets legislation and he shows leadership, a lot of those moderate swing voters will come back and offset any further erosion in his conservative base.

MSNBC: How will you be dealing with this issue Sunday, on Meet the Press?

Russert:  We’re going to tackle this with a debate between two Republicans – Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Georgia congressman Charlie Norwood.  They represent perfectly the differences in the Republican Party and square off on Meet the Press.

But we’re going to lead off the show with the war in Iraq and the increasingly tense situation with, with United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.