Bush Finds Congress Deaf on Immigration

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Despite President Bush's public push for a guest-worker program, the White House has had no success in getting Congress to follow its preferred path. What is the administration doing, or not doing, to further its agenda?

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

And I'm Melissa Block. Today President Bush tried to give Congress a push to pass an immigration bill. He called on lawmakers to pass a bill as soon as possible. The Senate seems to be stuck trying to find a compromise to revamp the nation's immigration laws. Republicans are split over how to deal with immigrants who are in the country illegally. Aside from today's words, the White House has not been publicly trying to influence the debate, even though immigration is an issue the president has listed as one of his top priorities. NPR's Don Gonyea reports.

DON GONYEA: No one ever said immigration would be an easy issue for lawmakers. The president wants stronger border security and enforcement and to allow immigrants to legally enter the U.S. to take jobs. He also says if certain conditions are met, then immigrants can get in line to become citizens. But a House-passed bill focuses mostly on keeping illegal immigrants out, and the Senate is now deeply divided. Mr. Bush's critics call his proposal an amnesty plan. He says it is not. So the president, less than a week after a summit in Cancun, at which he acknowledged the difficulty of getting an immigration bill through Congress, made this statement today outside the White House. He urged senators to continue their work to get a comprehensive bill.

GEORGE W: And a bill that will include a guest worker provision that will enable us to more secure the border, will recognize that there are people here working hard for jobs Americans won't do, and a guest worker provision that is not amnesty, one that provides for automatic citizenship.

GONYEA: The president, who spoke before heading off to Bridgeport, Connecticut to talk about health care, then added this.

BUSH: This is a vital debate. I thank the members who are working to get a bill done. I strongly urge them to come to conclusion as quickly as possible and pass a comprehensive bill. Thank you all very much.

GONYEA: But, as presidential calls to action go, this was a mild one. At the Capitol Building today, there was no sense of a full court press by a White House working hard to win votes. Vice President Cheney, the leading administration weapon in putting the pressure on members of Congress, was not on the Hill today either. Political scientist David Rohde, of Duke University, is a close observer of Congress. He describes the president's statement this morning this way.

DAVID ROHDE: Realism and maybe a sense of fatalism about the circumstance. I mean, we've got so many events, at least since 9/11, where the White House has thought that it could just declare what the Congress should do and the Congress would follow, and if it were true on other issues, it certainly isn't true in this issue.

GONYEA: Rohde says the White House also has to make a calculation based on the possibility that going to the mat on immigration and losing would send a powerful signal about presidential clout.

ROHDE: Even more importantly, I think the White House thinks that that would undermine even further chances of being successful on the other things that are going to be coming up that the White House cares a lot about.

GONYEA: It's the kind of choice the president rarely had to contemplate in his first term, when his approval ratings were strong. Now the White House has to pick its battles, mindful that especially in an election year members of Congress have other pressures, and these days are less worried about paying a price if they don't do what the president wants.

Don Gonyea, NPR News, the White House.

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