Bush to Woo GOP Senators on Immigration

President Bush is expected to use a Capitol Hill lunch meeting to urge Senate Republicans to help resurrect a bill aimed at overhauling immigration policy. The president says the bill is too important to be permitted to languish.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

President Bush returned to Washington last night from a trip to Europe; and today he takes a shorter journey up to the Capitol, where he'll have lunch with Republican senators. The meeting was scheduled before the Senate dropped work last week on the immigration bill that the president supports. But he's expected to take the opportunity to urge GOP senators to stop blocking that legislation, as NPR's Brian Naylor reports.

BRIAN NAYLOR: For President Bush, mired in an unpopular war and facing a Congress controlled by Democrats, immigration legislation has emerged as a rare opportunity to claim a success in his final two years in office. Before he left Bulgaria for Washington yesterday, the President said he believes an immigration bill is something, in his words, we can get done.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: We made two steps forward on immigration, we took a step back, and now I'm going to work with those who are focused on getting an immigration bill done and start taking some steps forward again. I believe we can get it done. I'll see you at the bill signing.

NAYLOR: And while the president won't want to hold his breath until an immigration bill is signed, there are some faint hints of progress on the issue. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid pulled the bill from the floor last Thursday night after supporters of the measure fell 15 votes short of the number needed to move it on to final passage. Reid now says he will do, in his words, everything possible to return the measure to the floor after the Senate debates an energy bill.

Senator HARRY REID (Democrat, Nevada; Senate Majority Leader): I want to get the bill done. An overwhelming majority of the Democratic Caucus have already voted for cloture. The American people are certainly looking to Congress for leadership. We hope that President Bush and his Republican allies in Congress will find their way to work with us, to deliver this bill to the immigrants, businesses and all Americans who demand and deserve it.

NAYLOR: Reid said a letter to the president calling on Mr. Bush to exercise, quote, "stronger leadership on the measure," which members of the administration helped draft. The bill would among other things create a path to citizenship for the 12 million undocumented immigrants now in the U.S., as well as tighten security at the border. Reid noted just seven Republican senators backed ending debate on the bill, the so-called cloture vote that under Senate rules is necessary before a final vote can be held.

Reid was criticized after his decision to pull the bill. Republican leaders said they thought the measure might have been approved if Republicans had two more days to debate it and offer amendments to change it. Speaking on the Senate floor yesterday, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell couldn't resist a dig at his counterpart across the aisle.

Senator MITCH McCONNELL (Republican, Kentucky; Senate Minority Leader): I thought there was every reason to believe that we could have finished the immigration bill by tonight; instead we ended up having another cloture vote - in my view a day or two premature, and taking the Friday off and today spending our time on a meaningless resolution giving the president advice about who the attorney general ought to be.

NAYLOR: McConnell has himself faced criticism for not reining in conservative Republicans who have been trying to block the immigration bill by amending it to death. Arizona Republican Senator Jon Kyl, one of the bill's GOP authors, said he expects the president to tell Republican senators at lunch today that he is aware of their concerns over the immigration measure. Kyl was interviewed last night on NPR's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

Senate JON KYL (Republican, Arizona): I think, first of all, he will acknowledge that a lot of what we're hearing from our constituents back home is actually true. Our folks here are worried that the government will not enforce a new immigration bill because, frankly, the current law is not very well enforced. I think he'll acknowledge that but make the point that actually we need some changes in the law for it to be enforceable.

NAYLOR: The test for President Bush will be whether he can convince conservative Republicans in the Senate, who have all but abandoned him on this issue, that's it's in their best interest to vote for a bill which most conservative activists see as a betrayal of their core beliefs.

Brian Naylor, NPR News the Capitol.

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