Tuesday, June 27, 2006

White House Continues to Fumble Borders Issue

Speaker of the House, Dennis Hastert, appears to have stopped any Congressional compromise on the Senate's horrendous Hagel-Martinez amnesty bill dead in its tracks, much to the White House's surprise and discomfort.

For the White House, the Congressional picnic last week 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 Mr. Bush was to welcome his guests, Speaker J. Dennis Hastert told the president that House Republicans were effectively sidelining — and in the view of some Congressional aides probably killing — what had become Mr. Bush's signature domestic initiative of the year: an overhaul of the nation's immigration laws.

That disappointing news for Mr. 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 Mr. 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 has long held dear.

President Bush continues to act in a manner that suggests that he and his advisors are completely detached from reality. The American public remains solidly against tolerating illegal immigration and the conservative republicans are militantly against anything resembling an amnesty for illegals. Yet, the President blindly promotes a bill that would grant amnesty for tens of millions of illegals already here whilst openinng the door to scores of millions more of the world's poor who wish to immigrate to the US. He is them surprised when conservative republican congressmen abandon him in the name of their own political survival.

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

No doubt the example of Brian Bilbray in California weighed heavily in the minds of congressional republicans. Bilbray was trailing his Democrat opponent until her off-the-cuff remarks suggested an acceptance of illegal immigration. Bilbray promptly announced his specific rejection of the Hagel-Martinez amnesty and managed to win the election. The election results resounded with House members, many of whom are facing tough elections.

But House Republicans said they never stopped pressing the case to the White House that the bill was a political disaster for endangered incumbents, and they were baffled at what they said was the failure of Mr. Bush's aides to appreciate their conviction.

One lawmaker said House Republicans who had attended two closed-door briefings on the issue by the White House deputy chief of staff, Karl Rove, and others, kept waiting for the administration to reverse their concerns that passing the bill would hurt Republicans; in the lawmakers' view, the administration never made a convincing case.

White House aides said Republicans had overestimated the bill's political liabilities and underestimated the long-term damage it could do to the party if Republicans were identified among Hispanics as anti-immigrant. 'This is a bad trajectory for the Republican Party right now,' said a senior Republican official who was granted anonymity to discuss the unusual friction in the Republican ranks.

Positions hardened when lawmakers went home for recess at the end of May and were confronted by constituents agitated over the issue. They returned to Washington to the news that Mr. Bilbray had narrowly won the seat vacated by Randy Cunningham, a Republican now jailed after a corruption scandal.

When House Republicans met for a conference that Wednesday, conservative members seized on the Bilbray victory as vindication of their argument that embracing the Senate and White House position would be poison in the fall elections, according to one participant in the meeting who was granted anonymity because the meetings were private.

Mr. Hastert and the House majority leader, John A. Boehner, told Mr. Bush in the Oval Office that the already long odds for passage of an immigration bill before the summer break had faded even more. But, aides said, the president, who has been concerned about the issue since his days as governor of Texas, where immigration is an important political and cultural issue, responded that he would not let up.

Over the next few days, Representative Thomas M. Reynolds of New York, the head of the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee, went to Mr. Boehner and Mr. Hastert and, using polling data and pointing to what he described as politically implausible sections of the bill, warned of the consequences of enactment of the Senate legislation.

'Reynolds made clear to the leaders that the House had already staked out its position, and from a political standpoint it would be irresponsible to accept a bill that was much different,' said Carl Forti, his communications director. He said Mr. Reynolds had told House leaders that supporting the bill would be 'suicide for some of our members.'

The underlying motives for President Bush's obsession with promoting Hispanic immigration (legal or illegal) to the US remain a mystery. But it is clear that they have blinded him and his advisors to the clear political realities confronting Republicans. A similar situation exists in the Iraq debacle, in which rosy visions and universalist sentiments won out over dispassionate realpolitik-thinking to mire US forces and prestige squarely in the middle of a millennia-spanning bloodbath between rival fanatics of a moribund culture.


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