Wednesday, July 05, 2006


Bush Signaling Shift in Stance on Immigration

WASHINGTON, July 4 — On the eve of nationwide hearings that could determine the fate of his immigration bill, President Bush is signaling a new willingness to negotiate with House Republicans in an effort to revise the stalled legislation before Election Day.

Republicans both inside and outside the White House say Mr. Bush, who has long insisted on comprehensive reform, is now open to a so-called enforcement-first approach that would put new border security programs in place before creating a guest worker program or path to citizenship for people living in the United States illegally.

"He thinks that this notion that you can have triggers is something we should take a close look at, and we are," said Candi Wolff, the White House director of legislative affairs, referring to the idea that guest worker and citizenship programs would be triggered when specific border security goals had been met, a process that could take two years.

The shift is significant because Mr. Bush has repeatedly said he favors legislation like the Senate's immigration bill, which establishes border security, guest worker and citizenship programs all at once. The enforcement-first approach puts Mr. Bush one step closer to the House, where Republicans are demanding an enforcement-only measure.

"The willingness to consider a phased-in situation, that's a pretty big concession from where they were at," said Representative Tom Cole, Republican of Oklahoma, whose closeness to Mr. Bush dates to his days as a top Republican National Committee official. "It's a suggestion they are willing to negotiate."

In a sign of that willingness, the White House last week invited a leading conservative proponent of an enforcement-first bill, Representative Mike Pence, Republican of Indiana, to present his ideas to Mr. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney in the Oval Office.

Ms. Wolff said the president found the Pence plan "pretty intriguing."

In an interview Tuesday, Mr. Pence said the president used precisely those words in their talk. Mr. Pence said that the meeting was scheduled to last 10 or 20 minutes but went on for 40, and that the president "was quite adamant throughout the meeting to make the point that he hoped I would be encouraged."

Mr. Bush has little choice but to negotiate, although he is on delicate terrain. Some House Republicans remain deeply opposed to even a guest worker program, and any move closer to the House could upset the delicate bipartisan compromise that enabled legislation to pass the Senate.

Polls show the public is deeply troubled by the problem of illegal immigration, and Mr. Bush, who has made the issue his domestic policy initiative, is eager for a victory on Capitol Hill. But a carefully constructed White House strategy to prod the House and Senate into compromise collapsed last month when skittish House Republicans opted for field hearings instead.

The House hearings begin Wednesday in Laredo, Tex., and San Diego and will continue throughout the summer. In the Senate, Arlen Specter, Republican of Pennsylvania and chairman of the Judiciary Committee, will convene his committee on Wednesday in Philadelphia.

The meetings will undoubtedly expose the deep Republican rift just as the elections draw near, and some say they are simply a way to stave off legislation until after November. Democrats, eager to pick up Congressional seats, intend to use the hearings to drive home the idea that Republicans have failed to address illegal immigration, a tactic that could further complicate prospects for a bill before Election Day.

One major question is whether Mr. Bush would give up on a path to citizenship for some of the estimated 11 million to 12 million people living here illegally. He has said repeatedly that it is impractical to deport those who have lived in the United States for a long time and built lives here; the Senate bill permits some longtime illegal residents to become eligible for citizenship if they learned English and paid taxes and a fine.

Many House Republicans deride such a proposal as amnesty. Mr. Pence would require illegal immigrants — even those in the United States for decades — to leave the country briefly before returning, with proper documentation, to participate in a guest worker system. Private employment agencies would set up shop overseas to process applications; after six years in a guest worker program, an immigrant could apply for citizenship.

"I believe it's amnesty if you can get right with the law by paying a fine but never have to go home," Mr. Pence said.

Whether Mr. Bush would accept that is not clear. Aides to Mr. Bush, including Karl Rove, the White House chief political strategist, and Tony Snow, the press secretary, say he remains adamant that any bill must address the status of the immigrants who are here illegally.

But one Republican close to the White House, granted anonymity to discuss internal deliberations, predicted that Mr. Bush would ultimately abandon the idea of a path to citizenship.

Giving up, though, would doom the legislation in the Senate. Mr. Pence met last week with leading Republican senators, including Mr. Specter, John McCain of Arizona and Mel Martinez of Florida.

In an interview Tuesday, Mr. Specter said that proponents of the Senate bill "are determined to see comprehensive" legislation, and that "comprehensive means all parts, including the 11 million." But he also said that he was very interested in Mr. Pence's approach, and that the tenor of the meeting was that the Senate could "move toward a middle ground" with the House.

The question now is whether President Bush will be able to find that middle ground in time for the midterm elections. Mr. Cole, the Oklahoma Republican, was not optimistic.

"Our people would like to have some sort of solution," he said, "but my instinct tells me this is much more likely to be a post-November, or a 2007 kind of deal than it is to happen between now and then."

Carl Hulse contributed reporting for this article.

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