President Bush, turning from adulation in the Balkans to difficulties back home, said Monday that his stalled immigration overhaul would be revived and his embattled attorney general would not fall under a Senate vote of no-confidence.
“I believe we can get it done,” Bush said of the immigration bill that has run into deep trouble on Capitol Hill. “I’ll see you at the bill signing.”
Warmly welcomed in both Bulgaria and Albania, the president spoke at a news conference with Bulgarian President Georgi Parvanov on the last stop of his eight-day trip in Europe. Bush said he would make a trip to Capitol Hill on Tuesday to lobby lawmakers in person on immigration.
He dismissed a planned Senate vote against Attorney General Alberto Gonzales as purely political, and said it would have “no bearing” on Gonzales’ fate. “I’ll make the determination as to whether he’s effective,” Bush said.
The no-confidence vote follows months of investigations and the disclosure of internal Justice Department documents that contradicted Gonzales’ initial assertions that the firing of federal prosecutors was not politically motivated or directly coordinated with the White House.
“They can have their votes of no-confidence but it’s not going to make the determination about who serves in my government,” Bush said.
Warm welcome in the Balkans
Sofia is the president’s last stop on his trip, which also took him to the Czech Republic, Poland, Germany, Italy and Albania.
On a sunny, cool morning, thousands of Bulgarians lined the cobblestoned main street through Nevsky Square as an honor guard played both countries’ national anthems.
Bush and Parvanov walked past a line of Bulgarian troops wearing white coats trimmed in red, and navy pants tucked into high black boots. After watching troops goose-stepping to upbeat military music, Bush prayed before a wreath at an eternal flame that marks Bulgaria’s tomb of the unknown soldier.
Afterward, Bush greeted Bulgarian soldiers who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Bulgarian parliament recently extended the Iraq mission until March 2008, and last year, Bulgaria signed an agreement with Washington allowing U.S. troops to use Bulgarian military facilities.
Bush then worked the crowd, reaching in to shake hands as the locals beamed and cheered. In contrast to thousands of anti-Bush protests at earlier stops, Bush seemed to bask in the affectionate attention he received here and, even more enthusiastically, in Albania the day before.
“I call him George, and he calls me George,” Bush joked about he and Parvanov share the same first name.
Bulgaria’s welcome for Bush, however, had one notable gaffe. On the president’s motorcade route, every other American flag was accidentally mounted upside down.
Determination on immigration bill
At a news conference with Parvanov, Bush’s comments on immigration reflected his determination to pass a bill to give millions of unlawful immigrants a path to citizenship. It is a top priority for the remainder of his presidency, but a fragile bipartisan compromise on the issue has unraveled.
“Now, it’s going to require leadership from the Democrat leaders in the Senate, and it’s going to require me staying engaged and working with Republicans who want a bill,” Bush said.
He has been criticized for not doing enough for the bill, which is bitterly opposed by many conservatives in his party. Some lawmakers claim it is dead for the year, but Bush vowed to push ahead.
Once again, Bush was asked about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s surprise counterproposal to the U.S. plan for a missile shield in Eastern Europe, based in the Czech Republic and Poland. Putin proposed instead a system anchored around a Soviet-era radar installation in Azerbaijan.
“I don’t know whether it’s technologically feasible,” Bush said of Putin’s idea, promising a review by experts.
Bulgaria’s leaders are worried that the rocket shield is not intended to cover southeastern parts of Europe, including their own country. Bush said that isn’t needed because other defenses cover Bulgaria, but Parvanov said he would only “accept any solution that would provide more guarantees, more security guarantees.”
Another worry comes from the tensions the proposed shield have created between the United States and Russia. Moscow fiercely opposes the plan, fearing the shield is aimed at Russia. The United States says no — the shield is aimed at Iran, in case it develops nuclear weapons.
Caught in the middle
Bulgaria feels caught in the middle. It was the most loyal Soviet ally during the Cold War, and even now is almost entirely dependent on Russian energy supplies.
“Bulgaria should not have to choose between the friendship between the U.S. and the friendship with Russia,” Parvanov said.
Bush stressed the strength of U.S. relations with Bulgaria, which shed communism in 1989, became a member of NATO in 2004 and the European Union in January.
The president said that during his talks, Bulgaria’s leaders appealed for U.S. help in freeing five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor sentenced to death in Libya for allegedly infecting hundreds of children with the AIDS virus.
The EU and the U.S. repeatedly have urged Libyan authorities to release the six, who have been in Libyan custody since 1999. They are accused of deliberately infecting about 400 children with HIV at a hospital in Benghazi. All six deny the charge.
“We will continue to make clear to Libya that the release of these nurses is a high priority for our country,” Bush said.