WASHINGTON: President George W. Bush changed few minds on a bipartisan immigration overhaul on 12 June at a rare luncheon meeting with Senate Republicans aimed at reviving the stalled legislation, lawmakers said.
Bush acknowledged the bill that would legalize millions of unlawful immigrants ignited passions but said it was the best way to protect US borders, a major concern for conservatives in his party who oppose it.
“Some members in there believe that we need to move a comprehensive bill, some don’t, I understand that,” Bush told reporters following the meeting.
“This is a highly emotional issue, but those of us standing here believe now is the time to move a comprehensive bill,” Bush added.
Senators said Bush did not twist arms, but also failed to win new support during the luncheon that covered other topics as well. Bush spent most of his time talking about the delicately balanced immigration compromise brokered by the White House and a bipartisan group of senators and fielded questions.
“I don’t think he changed any minds, but I think he helped those who may be on the fence, who may be still trying to make a decision and I think that was very helpful,” said Sen. Mel Martinez, a Florida Republican who helped negotiate the fragile compromise that fell apart last week in the Senate.
“He didn’t back down on his fundamental belief that we need to improve the immigration process,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions, an Alabama Republican who opposes the bill. “I didn’t get any impression of any dynamic change.”
The bill’s advocates hope to bring it back for a vote in the Senate and are working to break the impasse by coming up with a list of amendments that would be considered.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, said he would bring it up again if Bush builds more Republican support. The legislation was pulled last week after it failed to win the 60 votes needed in the 100-member chamber to advance to final passage.
“I have stated I am willing to take another look at immigration,” Reid said. “I support comprehensive immigration reform. The question is, do the Republicans support their president’s immigration bill?”
The bill, a hot issue even this far in advance of the November 2008 elections, was broadly criticized. Conservatives argued it would give amnesty to people who broke US laws, and unions said the temporary worker programme would create an underclass of cheap labourers.
The legislation ties tough border security and workplace enforcement measures to a temporary worker programme and a plan to legalize most of the 12 million illegal immigrants in the United States. It also would create a new merit-based system for future immigration.
Immigrant groups are anxious to provide a path to legalization and eventual citizenship for people who mostly came to the United States in search of jobs. Business groups are pushing for the temporary worker programme to help fill jobs Americans are unable or unwilling to perform.
Senators said they discussed with Bush the possibility of an emergency spending bill to beef up border security as a way to win more backing.
“I think there is a lot of support for that,” said Sen. Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican who helped draft the legislation.