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Bush's Immigration Problem

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, April 9, 2007; 1:02 PM

You might be forgiven today for thinking, as you listen to President Bush's speech about immigration, that you (or he) had entered a time warp.

Bush's big goal today is wooing Republicans in Congress by talking tough on border security and adding more punitive elements to his proposals for undocumented workers.

But wait -- don't the Democrats control Congress now?

They do, of course, but when it comes to the potential overhaul of the nation's immigration laws, Bush is engaged in a delicate dance.

Immigration is possibly the only significant political issue where the general outlines of Bush's policy proposals engender more support from Democrats than from Republicans. So his immediate goal is trying to get a critical mass of the members of his own party to go along with him.

If he can accomplish that, the president will presumably swing back to gather up the Democrats -- assuming he hasn't gone too far in appeasing Republicans for the Democrats to stomach.

The chances of all this happening are slim. Delicate dances have never been Bush's strong suit. Futhermore, this one may require more political clout than Bush has left.

The Coverage

Massimo Calabresi writes in Time: "President Bush returns to the Mexico border at Yuma, Arizona, Monday to reprise last year's role as buggy-riding border sheriff. And as with every piece of White House theater, this one has a very specific audience in mind: the anti-immigration right wing of the Republican party. It is this deeply skeptical crowd Bush must win over if he is to get the last potential domestic policy achievement of his presidency: 'comprehensive immigration reform.' And, with Congress' summer recess and the 2008 presidential primaries approaching, time is running out."

While Bush's latest plan "does offer a path to citizenship for the millions of illegal immigrants already in the country, it sets high hurdles: They would be sent to the end of the line of those applying for citizenship, would have to pay heavy fines for the years they have been in the country, would have to show that they have held a job while here, pay full back-taxes on their earnings and pass an English exam. And in a major departure from U.S. immigration policy as it has existed since 1965, the plan would do away with citizenship for their family members."

John D. McKinnon and Sarah Lueck write in the Wall Street Journal (subscription required) that the White House "wants at least 25 Republicans to back Mr. Bush's immigration proposals in the Senate, so as to generate bipartisan momentum for the bill in the House, where divisions are even wider. But many Republicans have demanded proof of improved border security before they consider Mr. Bush's priorities. . . .

"During his one-day visit to Yuma, Mr. Bush is expected to argue that he has lived up to his side of the bargain by beefing up security forces at the border."

McKinnon and Leuck write that several factors "appear to be working in Mr. Bush's favor." For one: "Immigration is emerging as a key indicator of whether the White House and Republicans can work with newly empowered Democrats in Congress."

But McKinnon and Lueck note that Democrats "remain wary of Mr. Bush's recent turn to the right. They worry that as they demand concessions, Republicans would abandon support for the legislation and try to shift blame for its failure to Democrats."

Ben Feller writes for the Associated Press: "Administration officials . . . have been meeting privately for weeks with Republican senators. That expanded to a meeting in late March with key senators from both parties.

"Out of that session, a work-in-progress plan emerged -- one described as a draft White House plan by officials in both parties and advocacy groups who got copies of the detailed blueprint.

"The White House disputes that characterization. Spokesman Scott Stanzel said it was only a starting point, an emerging consensus of Republican senators and the White House.

"Regardless, the floated proposal has already met opposition. Thousands of people marched through Los Angeles on Saturday, fueled in part by what they called a betrayal by Bush.

"The plan would grant work visas to undocumented immigrants but require them to return home and pay hefty fines to become legal U.S. residents. They could apply for three-year work visas, dubbed 'Z' visas, which would be renewable indefinitely but cost $3,500 each time.

"The undocumented workers would have legal status with the visas, but to become legal permanent residents with a green card, they'd have to return to their home country, apply at a U.S. embassy or consulate to re-enter legally and pay a $10,000 fine.

"That's far more restrictive than the bipartisan bill the Senate approved last year."

Jonathan Weisman writes in The Washington Post that despite the Democratic takeover, "Bush faces same dynamics that scuttled his last attempt: a cooperative Senate but bipartisan opposition in the House.

"In contrast to her approach to other controversial issues, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has told the White House that she cannot pass a bill with Democratic votes alone, nor will she seek to enforce party discipline on the issue. Bush will have to produce at least 70 Republican votes before she considers a vote on comprehensive immigration legislation, a task that may be very difficult for a president saddled with low approval ratings."

As for Bush's plan: "Key Democrats have said the plan would unacceptably split families while creating a permanent underclass of temporary workers with no prospects of fully participating in U.S. society. Their competing vision is the Security Through Regularized Immigration and a Vibrant Economy Act -- or Strive Act, newly introduced in the House by Reps. Luis V. Gutierrez (D-Ill.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.)."

Where Bush Stands

Susan Page writes in USA Today: "President Bush is reaching levels of consistency that no White House would want.

"Bush's job-approval rating in a USA Today/Gallup Poll taken Monday through Thursday is 38%. His standing has stayed below 40% for seven consecutive months.

"Since the advent of modern polling, only two presidents have suffered longer strings of such low ratings. One was Harry Truman, whose popularity sank during the final 26 months of his tenure as the Korean War stalemated. The other was Richard Nixon during the 13 months leading up to his resignation amid the Watergate scandal."

Ken Herman writes for the Cox News Service: "The calendar and the Constitution give him 21 more months in office.

"But confronted by a hostile Congress, a host of controversies and a confounding war, time is running out on President Bush's chance to shape the issues on which he barnstormed the country in 2000. . . .

"'Six hundred sixty-three days, 52 minutes, 40 seconds,' said Dan Bartlett, counselor to the president, glancing at the countdown clock in his West Wing office. 'That's a long time in some respects. It enables you to get a lot done. I don't think people feel like time is running out.'

"But it is, said Brookings Institution governance scholar Stephen Hess. . . . 'He has probably done the things that he could have accomplished by this time and must realize that,' Hess said. 'That's the life cycle of a presidency.'"

Kenneth T. Walsh blogs for U.S. News about the White House's big hope: "White House advisers say they see signs that majority Democrats in Congress are shifting too far to the left or moving to extreme positions on Iraq and other issues, giving Republicans the potential opening they are looking for.

"'The Democrats will overplay their hand,' says a GOP strategist. 'And this will allow us to go back on offense.' . . . Those insiders say the country will eventually see the Democrats as defeatists and liberals who want to impose their views on Middle America."

E-Mail Watch

Tom Hamburger writes in the Los Angeles Times: "When Karl Rove and his top deputies arrived at the White House in 2001, the Republican National Committee provided them with laptop computers and other communication devices to be used alongside their government-issued equipment.

"The back-channel e-mail and paging system, paid for and maintained by the RNC, was designed to avoid charges that had vexed the Clinton White House -- that federal resources were being used inappropriately for political campaign purposes.

"Now, that dual computer system is creating new embarrassment and legal headaches for the White House, the Republican Party and Rove's once-vaunted White House operation.

"Democrats say evidence suggests the RNC e-mail system was used for political and government policy matters in violation of federal record preservation and disclosure rules.

"In addition, Democrats point to a handful of e-mails obtained through ongoing inquiries suggesting the system may have been used to conceal such activities as contacts with lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who was convicted on bribery charges and is now in prison for fraud.

"Democratic congressional investigators are beginning to demand access to this RNC-White House communications system, which was used not only by Rove's office but by several top officials elsewhere in the White House.

"The prospect that such communication might become public has further jangled the nerves of an already rattled Bush White House.

"Some Republicans believe that the huge number of e-mails -- many written hastily, with no thought that they might become public -- may contain more detailed and unguarded inside information about the administration's far-flung political activities than has previously been available."

But on the other hand, Hamburger writes: "Some Republican activists say the e-mail request will not create great difficulty for the White House because nothing nefarious happened and because the RNC automatically purges some e-mails after 30 days."

A Leakier White House?

Has the White House become leakier of late?

Washington Post White House correspondent Peter Baker says so, in a piece in the Post's Outlook section: "For most of the past six years, journalists covering the White House have indeed been forced to master the art of Kremlinology. The famously disciplined and leak-averse Bush team succeeded at hermetically sealing the building, keeping behind-the-scenes machinations, well, behind the scenes. Deprived of any genuine information about how the institution operated, reporters were left to extrapolate what was really going on based on who was standing where at a Rose Garden photo op.

"But something surprising has been happening in the past few months. The hermetic seal is showing cracks, and now the most disciplined administration in modern times has begun to see its internal workings seep into public view."

Some of Baker's examples: "Bush's shake-up of his Iraq team appeared in the newspapers before he was ready to announce it. His fight with the Joint Chiefs of Staff over plans to send more troops to Iraq played out on the front page for weeks. Secret memos by his national security adviser and his old defense secretary showed up in print. And unnamed officials put out word that Bush's new defense secretary tried unsuccessfully to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba."

But Baker also acknowledges the limits of this new openness: "During Clinton's tenure -- and, I'm told, during those of his predecessors -- it was possible within limits to gain insight into how the White House worked. Reporters who had a question about economic policy could call the president's economic adviser, those writing on health care could call his domestic policy adviser, those with legal queries could call the counsel's office. None of those officials in the Bush White House returns reporters' calls."

And yet, it's not just that we don't know the details of how things work in the White House. Even with the new (relative) leakiness, the White House remains fundamentally non-transparent.

Baker also doesn't address the fact that leaks are not the only way to find out what's going on inside a White House. The White House press corps has a built-in overdependence on reporting what people inside that building tell them -- while too little effort goes into ferreting out the effects that White House decisions have in the wider bureaucracy and elsewhere.

Kerik Watch

Here's a blast from the past.

John Solomon and Peter Baker write in The Washington Post, revisiting the White House's selection of Bernard B. Kerik to be secretary of homeland security in 2004 -- in spite of revelations about Kerik's questionable financial deals, an ethics violation, allegations of mismanagement and his friendship with a businessman who was linked to organized crime.

"Alarmed about the raft of allegations, several White House aides tried to raise red flags. But the normal investigation process was short-circuited, the sources said. Bush's top lawyer, Alberto R. Gonzales, took charge of the vetting, repeatedly grilling Kerik about the issues that had been raised. In the end, despite the concerns, the White House moved forward with his nomination -- only to have it collapse a week later."

Solomon and Baker describe "how Bush rushed the usual process in his eagerness to install a political ally and how Gonzales, as White House counsel, failed to stop the nomination despite the many warning signs. 'The vetting process clearly broke down,' said a senior White House official. 'This should not happen.' . . .

"Aides said they now believe they were lulled by Kerik's swaggering Sept. 11 reputation, and were too passive in accommodating the president's desire for secrecy and speed and too willing to trust Giuliani's judgment."

Goodling Watch

Margaret Talev and Marisa Taylor write for McClatchy Newspapers: "A top deputy to embattled Attorney General Alberto Gonzales resigned abruptly Friday, two weeks after she said she'd invoke the Fifth Amendment rather than testify to congressional investigators who are probing the Bush administration's firing and hiring of eight federal prosecutors.

"Monica Goodling was the senior counsel to Gonzales and the liaison between the Justice Department and the White House, which puts her in a position to answer questions about whether top administration officials hired and fired some federal prosecutors for partisan political reasons."

'Loyal Bushies' Watch

Dan Eggen writes in The Washington Post: "Goodling's resignation also comes amid signs of sinking morale in some U.S. attorney's offices. In Minneapolis, three top managers staged a revolt Thursday, choosing to demote themselves rather than work for the newly confirmed U.S. attorney there, who is a former Gonzales aide, officials said."

Ryan J. Foley writes for the Associated Press from Wisconsin: "Some Democrats said Friday the acquittal of a former state worker on fraud charges raises questions about whether a U.S. attorney's investigation was a political attempt to tarnish Gov. Jim Doyle.

"From the beginning, many Democrats wondered whether U.S. Attorney Steven Biskupic, a Bush appointee, pursued the case against Georgia Thompson to go after Doyle, a Democrat who was in a race for re-election."

The New York Times editorial board writes: "As Congress investigates the politicization of the United States attorney offices by the Bush administration, it should review the extraordinary events the other day in a federal courtroom in Wisconsin. . . . It just might shed some light on a question that lurks behind the firing of eight top federal prosecutors: what did the surviving attorneys do to escape the axe?"

Gonzales Watch

Michael Isikoff writes for Newsweek: "At a recent 'prep' for a prospective Sunday talk-show interview, Gonzales's performance was so poor that top aides scrapped any live appearances. . . . Gonzales kept contradicting himself and 'getting his timeline confused,' said one participant who asked not to be identified talking about a private meeting."

In my March 26 column, I asked who's scripting Gonzales now?

Isikoff may have the answer: "Courtney Elwood, a former deputy to Dick Cheney's chief counsel David Addington, who is now working for Gonzales, has taken on a bigger role, shutting down responses to most inquiries from Congress and the news media because she views the firings flap as a purely 'legal' issue."

David Stout and David Johnston write in the New York Times: "How long Mr. Gonzales's service will continue has been a topic of constant speculation of late, given the turmoil over the dismissals and skepticism over his accounts."

David Stout writes in the New York Times: "Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich on Sunday became the latest Republican to criticize Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales for the dismissals of eight United States attorneys, and he said Mr. Gonzales should consider stepping down."

Oversight Watch

Gail Russell Chaddock writes in the Christian Science Monitor: "Not since the Depression-era Congress of 1932 has Capitol Hill ramped up so quickly for oversight hearings and related legislation -- most targeting the Bush administration. . . .

"'There's a whole culture of effective oversight, which the Congress carried out in the 1970s up through the early 1990s, that has been very much lost, and there's a lot of effort now going on to rebuild oversight skills,' says Charles Tiefer, a professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law and a former deputy House counsel."

About Those Recess Appointments

Remember those controversial recess appointments Bush made last week?

Jim Rutenberg writes in the New York Times: "Bush seemed to be poking a sharp stick at Congressional Democrats from weak ground -- in the middle of a major clash over war financing, no less.

"But the calculation behind the moves, White House officials said, was as plain as the logo on the coffee mugs for sale down the country road from Mr. Bush's ranch here that read, 'W: Still Our President.'

"The recess appointments helped put the White House where it likes to be: in a robust fight with the Democrats that even the president's most dispirited backers can get excited about. As one administration official put it, 'It allows us to get our footing back, at least, on issues that resonate with the public.'

"It is a high-stakes strategy that will culminate in the fight over war financing on Capitol Hill. The fight will start anew next week, when Congress returns from its break. But as the president has vacationed here, his administration has been pressing against the Democrats on all fronts."

Following Us Home?

William Douglas writes for McClatchy Newspapers: "It's become President Bush's mantra, his main explanation for why he won't withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq anytime soon.

"In speech after speech, in statement after statement, Bush insists that 'this is a war in which, if we were to leave before the job is done, the enemy would follow us here.'

"The line, which Bush repeated Wednesday in a speech to troops at California's Fort Irwin, suggests a chilling picture of warfare on American streets.

"But is it true?

"Military and diplomatic analysts say it isn't. They accuse Bush of exaggerating the threat that enemy forces in Iraq pose to the U.S. mainland. . . .

"U.S. military, intelligence and diplomatic experts in Bush's own government say the violence in Iraq is primarily a struggle for power between Shiite and Sunni Muslim Iraqis seeking to dominate their society, not a crusade by radical Sunni jihadists bent on carrying the battle to the United States."

Also see my March 19 column, They Won't Follow Us Home.

Pelosi Watch

Helene Cooper and Carl Hulse write in the New York Times about the complaints from senior Bush officials over House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi's stop in Damascus to visit with the Syrian president.

"The tone of the complaints -- particularly Vice President Dick Cheney's public characterization of her visit as 'bad behavior' -- contrasts sharply with the administration's silence about a similar trip to Damascus a week ago by Republican lawmakers, Representatives Frank R. Wolf of Virginia, Joe Pitts of Pennsylvania and Robert B. Aderholt of Alabama.

"Nor was there much heard from the White House about a meeting that Representative Darrell Issa, a California Republican, had with Mr. Assad on Thursday, a day after Ms. Pelosi met with the Syrian president.

"Ms. Pelosi, in a telephone interview from Lisbon on Friday, said she could not account for the Bush administration's assault, which she at one point equated to a tantrum."

Think Progress has video of Rep. Nick Rahall (D-W.Va), who was part of Pelosi's delegation, telling C-SPAN that Pelosi told Bush of the trip to Syria a day before they left, and Bush did not object.

The New York Times editorial board writes: "There is at least one point on which we and the critics of Nancy Pelosi's visit to Damascus can agree: It is the White House, not the speaker of the House, that should be taking the diplomatic lead. . . .

"In the administration's perverse view, the only legitimate time for negotiations would be after the most contentious and difficult issues -- Syria's support for Hamas and Hezbollah, its meddling in Lebanon and open border with Iraq -- have already been resolved. Thus, what ought to be the main agenda points for diplomatic discussions have been turned into a set of preconditions designed to ensure that no discussions ever take place."

Olmert's Role?

Liberal blogger Josh Marshall calls on the press to look into whether the White House pressured Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to issue a statement aimed at embarrassing Pelosi.

He links to a story by Ron Kampeas for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in which Rep. Tom Lantos, a Democrat who accompanied Pelosi, suggests that White House pressure was involved.

"Such backdoor statecraft between the White House and Olmert would not be unprecedented," Kampeas writes.

"Last year, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice talked Olmert into a 48-hour cease-fire during the war with Hezbollah to allow humanitarian relief, but within hours Israeli planes were bombing again, to Rice's surprise and anger. Olmert had received a call, apparently from Cheney's office, telling him to ignore Rice."

Really? That would be worth looking into, as well.

Library Watch

Mark Silva writes in the Chicago Tribune that "the possible advent of the Bush library -- and especially an ideological think tank planned as part of it -- has split the [Southern Methodist University] faculty, feeding a debate that simmers beneath the serenity of the leafy campus. At an institution dedicated to scholarly achievement and academic freedom, many fear the work of the Bush Institute would forever associate SMU with a right-wing political agenda.

"The vision of a Bush-backed think tank at a campus owned by the United Methodist Church has exposed emotional rifts within a church already divided over the war in Iraq. Bishops and other clergy critical of the pre-emptive war and the administration's treatment of enemy combatants are protesting what they view as a memorial to Bush, a Methodist whose policies they say are 'antithetical' to their teachings."

Saved From Self-Immolation

The Detroit News reports: "Credit Ford Motor Co. CEO Alan Mulally with saving the leader of the free world from self-immolation.

"Mulally told journalists at the New York auto show that he intervened to prevent President Bush from plugging an electrical cord into the hydrogen tank of Ford's hydrogen-electric plug-in hybrid at the White House last week. Ford wanted to give the Commander-in-Chief an actual demonstration of the innovative vehicle, so the automaker arranged for an electrical outlet to be installed on the South Lawn and ran a charging cord to the hybrid. However, as Mulally followed Bush out to the car, he noticed someone had left the cord lying at the rear of the vehicle, near the fuel tank.

"'I just thought, 'Oh my goodness!' So, I started walking faster, and the President walked faster and he got to the cord before I did. I violated all the protocols. I touched the President. I grabbed his arm and I moved him up to the front,' Mulally said. 'I wanted the president to make sure he plugged into the electricity, not into the hydrogen This is all off the record, right?'"

Clarification and Retraction

In Thursday's column, I called attention to Bush's antics while touring a desert training facility at Fort Irwin in California. At one point, Bush sent a robot designed to disarm improvised explosive devices toward the pool of reporters and photographers whose job it is to follow him around.

I also quoted from an article by Tatiana Prophet in the local Victorville Daily Press, in which she described New York Times reporter Jim Rutenberg, who was recruited as a foil by the president, "kneeling in the desert dust" and being a "good sport."

I spoke to Prophet yesterday, and she told me that she should have described Rutenberg as "squatting" rather than kneeling -- much as the photographers depicted in this picture were doing. "I didn't mean to imply he was kneeling before the president," she said.

And Rutenberg today told me he wasn't even squatting -- only the photographers were.

Had I known that Rutenberg wasn't kneeling, I wouldn't have stated as I did that his behavior constituted physical abasement.

Late Night Humor

Jay Leno, via U.S. News: "The annual Easter egg hunt at the White House is going to be a little different this year. Instead of eggs, they're going to be hiding Alberto Gonzales' e-mails."

Cartoon Watch

Jeff Danziger and Ann Telnaes on Cheney's latest broadside; and Garry Trudeau's latest batch of Bush-at-warisms.

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