In a defeat for President Bush, Republican congressional leaders said Tuesday that broad immigration legislation is all but doomed for the year, a victim of election-year concerns in the House and conservatives' implacable opposition to citizenship for millions of illegal immigrants.
"Our number one priority is to secure the border, and right now I haven't heard a lot of pressure to have a path to citizenship," said Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., announcing plans for an unusual series of hearings to begin in August on Senate-passed immigration legislation.
"I think it is easy to say the first priority of the House is to secure the borders," added Rep. Roy Blunt, the GOP whip.
In deference to the president, neither Hastert nor any other Republican official in either house said publicly that the president's ambitious plan - including a guest worker program as well as an opportunity for citizenship for many illegal immigrants - was dead for the year.
But several Republicans in both houses, speaking on condition of anonymity, were less guarded.
"There will be no path to citizenship," said one lawmaker who attended a strategy session in Hastert's office.
Turning the table on Democrats
Some officials added that Republicans have begun discussing a pre-election strategy for seizing the political high ground on an issue that so far has served to highlight divisions within the party. Among the possibilities, these officials said, are holding votes in the House or Senate this fall on additional measures to secure the borders, or on legislation that would prevent illegal immigrants from receiving Social Security payments or other government benefits.
"The discussion is how to put the Democrats in a box without attacking the president," said one aide, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Additionally, GOP aides said Rep. Tom Reynolds, chairman of the House campaign committee, has recently been using polling data to persuade fellow members of the leadership that the public would respond poorly to some provisions in the Senate-passed bill.
Bush, Senate not giving up
White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said after Hastert's announcement of hearings, "The president is undeterred. We are committed and we have been working very hard with members (of Congress) to see if we can reach consensus on an issue the American people have said they want action on."
In the Senate, Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., told reporters he welcomed hearings. "As much examination of the House bill and Senate bill as possible is good," he said.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a principal author of the Senate-passed measure, offered to testify at House hearings. Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said, "I'm hopeful" of a compromise before the elections.
Hastert announced no schedule for the completion of hearings. He and other members of the leadership sidestepped numerous times when asked whether a House-Senate compromise along the lines of what Bush has sought could come to a vote by year's end. "I am not putting any timetable on this thing, but I think we need to get this thing done right," the speaker told reporters.
The Republican-controlled House passed border security legislation last year, largely along party lines. By contrast, the Senate approved a bipartisan bill calling for tougher border enforcement; penalties against employers who hire illegal immigrants, a new guest worker program and a shot at citizenship for most of the estimated 12 million immigrants in the country illegally.
The measure won the support of only 23 of the Senate's 55 Republicans. Frist, a likely presidential contender for 2008, is under pressure from conservatives not to agree to a compromise bill they oppose. Democrats, on the other hand, are insisting on assurances that any final bill will remain bipartisan.
Hastert told reporters he had conveyed his views on immigration privately to Bush in recent days, and other officials said opinions among House Republicans hardened when Republican Rep. Brian Bilbray won a special election this month in the San Diego area. Bilbray campaigned for tougher immigration measures than Bush favors, and equated the president's approach to amnesty.
Several Republican officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Hastert and the president had expressed differing views at one meeting about the importance of immigration in Bilbray's victory. These officials said Hastert assigned it greater weight than the president. The Republican National Committee ran a 72-hour program in the campaign's final days that many Republicans credit with maximizing the vote for the winner.
Politics of immigration
The RNC conducted a postelection poll of the San Diego-area district that suggests voters take a dim view of citizenship for illegal immigrants.
The poll found that when people were asked if they prefer a comprehensive bill to one that emphasizes border security and imposing criminal penalties on individuals already in the country illegally, the comprehensive approach was favored, 45-32. But when asked if they favor a comprehensive approach or a security-first bill that "under no circumstances" allows for citizenship, 43 percent said they prefer focusing on the border, and 33 percent picked overall reform.