Split doomed immigration plan

GOP leaders in Congress broke with the president in favor of short-term political gains

June 25, 2006|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON -- For the White House, the congressional picnic June 15 seemed like the perfect setting to mend strained relations with Republican allies on Capitol Hill: President Bush and his advisers eating taquitos and Mexican confetti rice on the lawn of the White House with Republican congressional leaders.

But moments before Bush was to welcome his guests, Speaker Dennis Hastert told the president that House Republicans were effectively sidelining - and in the view of some congressional aides, probably killing - Bush's signature domestic initiative of the year: an overhaul of immigration laws.

That disappointing news for Bush signaled the apparent collapse of a carefully orchestrated White House strategy to push a compromise immigration bill through Congress this summer - and in the process invigorate Bush's second term with a badly needed domestic victory.

The decision by the House leadership to defy the president after he had put so much prestige on the line - including a rare prime-time Oval Office speech for a domestic initiative - amounted to a clear rebuke of the president on an issue that he holds dear.

Bush's immigration measure was derailed by an overly optimistic assessment by the White House of the prospects for building a bipartisan coalition in support of the bill and a fundamental misreading of the depth of hostility to the measure among House Republicans.

White House and congressional Republican leaders acknowledged a division over whether to focus on the short term or on the party's long-term political prospects. Bush's aides saw the House bill, which would make it a felony to live in America illegally and would close off any chance to win legal status, as a threat to their attempts to broaden the party's appeal to Hispanic voters.

House Republican leaders saw Bush's approach, calling for tougher enforcement and avenues to legalize the illegal work force as well as leaving a possible path to citizenship, as a threat to House Republicans fearful of losing control in this fall's elections by angering Republican voters who viewed the plan as amnesty.

Bush's first attempt to advocate the measure was described even by allies as initially muddled and tentative, permitting opponents to build a case against it before he made his Oval Office address.

Republicans' apprehensions were cemented this month when, in a special election for a vacant House seat in California, Brian P. Bilbray, who ran on a pledge to build a fence along the border with Mexico, was elected after explicitly running against Bush's position on immigration.

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