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Bush takes immigration case directly to GOP

President Bush urged GOP senators Tuesday to sign on to his immigration bill, but many said the president should secure America’s borders first before they would consider legalizing 12 million unlawful immigrants.
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Declaring that “the status quo is unacceptable,” President Bush urged Republican senators Tuesday to sign on to his immigration reform bill, but many in his own party said the president should secure America’s borders first before they would consider legalizing as many as 12 million unlawful immigrants.

Bush returned to Washington from the Group of 8 economic summit in Europe and plunged into lobbying for the immigration bill, which is one of his top domestic priorities. “Now is the time to get it done,” he told reporters after meeting Senate Republican leaders for lunch in a rare visit to the Capitol.

“This is a highly emotional issue, but those of us standing here believe now is the time to move a comprehensive bill that enforces our borders and has good workplace enforcement, that doesn’t grant automatic citizenship, that addresses this problem in a comprehensive way,” the president said.

Bush is working to overcome conservative Republican resistance to a bill being pushed by the White House in an unlikely coalition with liberal Democrats in Congress. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., is confident that the bill could pass if it ever came to a vote, but he has said he will not bring it to the floor unless enough Republican support can be gathered to reach the 60 votes needed to overcome procedural roadblocks thrown up by opponents.

NBC’s Chip Reid reported after the lunch meeting that Democrats wanted at least 10 Republicans, and ideally as many as 20, to join the seven who have already signed on with the majority Democrats.

White House remains optimistic
White House press secretary Tony Snow predicted that Bush would be able to persuade enough senators to at least let the bill come to a vote.

“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,’ ” Snow said in interview on NBC’s TODAY.

But that may not be possible, because too many senators cannot live with Bush’s proposal to legalize unlawful immigrants already in the country, said Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, who organized Tuesday’s meeting with Bush.

“I think there are some good parts of the bill, but the main part of the bill that is not acceptable by the American people, I think, is the amnesty part,” Hutchison said in an interview with MSNBC's Chris Jansing, calling immigration “the most difficult issue that I’ve ever dealt with.”

“We have to set the precedent right now — for today, for the future — that to come into our country and work, you have to apply from your home country,” she said. “You have to be outside the country to apply legally.”

Opponents: Tighten borders first
Other Republican opponents said Tuesday that Bush should set aside the politically problematic goal of rewriting immigration law, affording millions of illegal immigrants legal status, and focus on building trust by tightening security along America’s borders, NBC’s Ken Strickland reported from Capitol Hill.

In a letter they sent to the White House, Republican Sens. Johnny Isakson and Saxby Chambliss of Georgia cited Bush’s “lack of credibility” on immigration and urged him to send Congress an emergency supplemental spending bill to fund border security.

“The message from a majority of Georgians is that they have no trust that the United States Government will enforce the laws contained in this new legislation and secure the border first,” the senators wrote.

In a second letter, nine other Republican senators called on Bush to enforce current border security laws “regardless of whether the Senate passes the immigration reform bill.”

Describing border security as “vital,” the group said it was “the best way to restore trust with the American people and facilitate future improvements of our immigration policy.”

The letter was signed by some of the leading conservative members of the Senate, including Tom Coburn and Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, Jim Bunning of Kentucky and Jeff Sessions of Alabama. The 11 senators behind the two letters make up more than 20 percent of the Senate Republican caucus who are lining up behind a “border security first” option, Strickland reported.

But Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said eagerness to tighten border security should lead skeptics to back the bill, which includes funding to do just that.

“I have Border Patrol agents who are working overtime to protect the border,” Chertoff said in an interview on MSNBC. “... This problem at the border has been building for 30 years.”

Chertoff held out hope that senators could reach a compromise that met Bush’s goals while addressing qualms of conservative advocates of even tighter borders.

“I think Republicans are looking at an enforcement enhancement package,” he acknowledged. He predicted that a final bill would include “enhanced penalties, basically making sure the enforcement parts of this bill are as strong as they can be.”

Make-or-break test for Bush?
Political analysts told NBC News that the immigration bill represented a critical test of Bush’s ability to pass any major domestic legislation as he enters the final year and a half of his presidency burdened by dissatisfaction on both sides of the aisle with U.S. progress in Iraq and irritation at his continued support for embattled Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

“The continued failure of Iraq and the cost of Iraq, in lives and money, has spread into his capacity to govern and to push his own agenda domestically,” James Thurber, a presidential scholar at American University in Washington, told NBC’s Andrea Mitchell.

“It used to be Iraq, Iraq, Iraq, but now it’s Iraq, immigration, Gonzales, [I. Lewis “Scooter”] Libby,” former Republican presidential adviser David Gergen said. “The equation has changed, and it’s all bad news for the president.”

For now, Democrats are content to sit on the sidelines and let the Republicans expose their divisions. Reid and other Democratic leaders sent Bush a letter declaring that it was up to him to bring his own party into line.

“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.