Washington -- Republican senators told President Bush yesterday that his administration's lack of credibility in the fight against illegal immigration was a major hindrance to passing overhaul legislation, and they urged him to ask for emergency funds to ramp up enforcement.
The criticism came as Bush made his first appearance in nearly six years at the GOP senators' weekly strategy luncheon in the Capitol. Senators said the president was receptive to the idea of a supplemental budget request - the same mechanism used to pay for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"No one trusts the federal government to do the job right because we have never done it before," said Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, repeating concerns aired in what lawmakers described as an intense but respectful discussion in an unadorned conference room.
Sen. Mel Martinez of Florida, a leading proponent of the bill, said a supplemental budget request could build support for the stalled comprehensive immigration bill by persuading skeptical GOP voters that new legislation was a good idea.
"Some people said, `I'm undecided. Help me with my decision,'" Martinez said. "A renewed energy was created today by his visit."
After the session, the president made a brief statement. "Some members in there believe that we need to move a comprehensive bill, some don't; I understand that," Bush said in the ornate hallway outside the Senate chamber. "This is a highly emotional issue, but those of us standing here believe now is the time to move a comprehensive bill."
The discussion, the senators said, focused on the idea of a new budget request, not the details - so it was unclear how much money the president might request to secure the border or prevent illegal hires at workplaces. While talk in the Capitol's corridors swirled around the possibility of an emergency budget request, negotiations continued behind closed doors on the logjam that blocked the bill last week: how many amendments Republican senators would be permitted to introduce and debate.
Martinez and other senators involved in the talks said they were "very close" to reaching an agreement on amendments that would permit the bill to return to the Senate floor in about two weeks.
Senators who met with the president said he spent about half the time talking and half listening. Bush took pains to detail what the administration has done to improve border security and workplace enforcement, including more frequent raids on employers suspected of hiring illegal immigrants.
South Dakota Sen. John Thune, a bill opponents, said that the president was "very persuasive" but that his own position on the bill would depend on "what happens from here on in in the Senate."
"Nothing was said to change my fundamental concerns about the bill," said Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama."
Among the lawmakers who pressed Bush to prove he is serious about enforcement were two Georgia Republicans who helped write the bill, Johnny Isakson and Saxby Chambliss. Both have come under intense criticism from constituents and have since distanced themselves from the legislation, siding last week against bringing the bill up for a final vote.
"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 two senators wrote to Bush in a letter yesterday.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said yesterday that "a number of my members" were interested in the concept.
Although senators said the president appeared receptive, White House spokesman Tony Snow was noncommittal. "We're not going to comment on particular pieces of the conversation," Snow said.
Nicole Gaouette and Maura Reynolds write for the Los Angeles Times.