One hundred days into his all-out push to win an immigration bill President Bush has convinced House Republicans he is serious about enforcing the border, but he has failed to win their support for his plan to create a guest-worker program or a path to citizenship for illegal aliens.
"I've had a lot of conversations with the president and I just try to make him understand that comprehensive is fine, but the first thing we have to do is protect the borders," House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Illinois Republican, told The Washington Times during a campaign stop for a fellow Republican in Arizona last week. "Until you protect the borders, any reform without protecting the borders is premature."
He said that during a recent outing in his district, when he invited constituents to come see him in a park in the town of Geneseo, 150 people showed up and that with the exception of one woman, "every one of those people said secure the border first. It was amazing."
In fact, House Republicans are "stauncher than ever" that a border security bill must come first, said Rep. Peter T. King, New York Republican and chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, in a telephone interview.
"I think he's convinced us he's serious [about enforcement], but to me these are only first steps. Before we even consider any type of quote-unquote comprehensive legislation, we have to show we can control the border -- not that we want to, but that we can," Mr. King said. "Speaking for myself and, I believe, a great majority of House Republicans, we have to see results before we consider going any further. And I can't see that happening in less than a year or 18 months."
Mr. Bush began his major push May 15 with a prime-time address in which he called for National Guard troops to assist on the border, promised to get tough on businesses that hire illegal aliens, and demanded that Congress pass a bill that includes a guest-worker program and a path to citizenship for most illegal aliens.
But House Republicans say allowing illegal aliens to stay amounts to amnesty.
Polls show varying support for a guest-worker program and for legalizing illegal aliens, but the one area almost all voters agree on in polls is the need to do more to secure the borders.
The House last year passed an enforcement bill that calls for 700 miles of new border fence, cracks down on employers who hire illegal aliens and makes illegal presence a felony. The Senate this year passed a bill that includes half that amount of fencing, includes new requirements for employers and creates both a new foreign-worker program and a path to citizenship for nearly 10 million illegal aliens.
Mr. Bush has generally backed the Senate approach, which he called "a good immigration bill," and the White House yesterday said Mr. Bush is making progress this summer toward winning a comprehensive bill.
"I'm sure members are hearing from their constituents that they want to have an immigration bill," Bush spokeswoman Dana Perino said. "We consistently see that people understand that if we're going to solve any of our immigration problems individually, that they need to be solved together in one bill, comprehensively."
Mr. Bush has also tried to boost the effort of Rep. Mike Pence, Indiana Republican, who has his own plan that would require illegal aliens to briefly leave the country and then re-enter. It would also give them a path to citizenship, but would make the aliens wait far longer than the Senate plan.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff is scheduled to meet with Mr. Pence during a tour the congressman is making of the border this week.
Still, Mr. King and other top House Republicans such as Judiciary Committee Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. have panned the plan as unworkable, and Mr. King said it has not gained majority support among House Republicans.
At this point, says one of Mr. Bush's top House allies on the issue, the president has done what he can and the issue is no longer in his hands.
"I haven't always agreed with the way they've pushed things, but boy, on immigration, you have to credit them -- they've been completely consistent," said Rep. Jeff Flake, Arizona Republican. "I just think it's really out of his hands now. He's made his position clear, he's gone around the country and spoken about it, it's up to the House now."
When Congress returns from its summer recess all sides expect the leaders to sit down and take stock of where the debate stands. And all sides still say they would like to get a deal done. But those who want a broad bill say the decision rests with House leaders.
Mr. Flake said his party's leaders in the House will have to decide "whether they're better off embracing comprehensive reform or just beating up on the border. Unfortunately, it looks like the latter."
One group that's had extended discussions with the White House is Republican House members from Texas.
Rep. John Carter, Texas Republican, said the group has had several meetings with Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove, and Mr. Rove has shown them numbers that suggest that border crossings have diminished and that solid progress on border security is happening.
Mr. Carter said, though, that just proves House Republicans were right in saying enforcement can make a difference, and he said the sentiment among his colleagues -- "and I talked to quite a few of them" -- is still for focusing on border security.
"Most are willing to say there's more to this issue than this, but round one is at the border," he said.
Mr. Hastert said he accepts the need for a guest-worker program and is willing to look at a bill that includes some way of measuring whether the border has been secured.
Mr. Carter said he could accept a framework that focuses on enforcement with "a pledge" to revisit the other questions.
But Mr. King said he would oppose writing into this year's bill any "trigger" that would automatically enact a guest-worker program or path to citizenship.
"I want a congressional vote to be the trigger," he said. "I want us to look at it ourselves, a year from now, 18 months from now, and let Congress decide whether the numbers have been met."
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