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Bush's Immigration Challenge

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, May 18, 2007; 2:08 PM

The immigration issue offers President Bush a chance to leave behind a significant legacy other than the war in Iraq. But unless he can execute a turnaround in both his political fortunes and his political strategy, his leverage on Capitol Hill is almost nonexistent.

It's not just that he's an unpopular lame duck, although that's part of it. Almost every success Bush has had as president, he owes to polarization. It's not clear that he has the political dexterity to lead from the middle. Nor is it clear the middle has any desire to follow him.

On immigration, Bush's few die-hard supporters aren't going to back him up. The hard-right, law-and-order fans who give him what little support he still has in Congress and in the polls are also the people most opposed to the sort of bipartisan compromise that Bush favors on immigration. (They call it "amnesty.")

Then again, it's never wise to entirely dismiss the president's power to effect public discourse. Bush's microphone on Iraq may be dead, a victim of his loss of credibility, but on other issues his voice can still be powerful -- particularly if it resonates with public sentiment.

The immigration debate has thus far been dominated by blowhards who promote a fear- and hate-driven faux populist agenda against illegals. So by simply talking about the problem in sympathetic and pragmatic ways, the president may succeed in contributing to the passage of legislation that would give him something other than Iraq to be remembered for.

The Coverage

Here is the text of Bush's remarks yesterday afternoon: "Immigration is a tough issue for a lot of Americans. The agreement reached today is one that will help enforce our borders, but equally importantly, it will treat people with respect. This is a bill where people who live here in our country will be treated without amnesty, but without animosity."

Jonathan Weisman writes in The Washington Post: "The Bush administration and a bipartisan group of senators reached agreement yesterday on a sprawling overhaul of the nation's immigration laws that would bring an estimated 12 million illegal immigrants out of society's shadows while stiffening border protections and cracking down on employers of undocumented workers.

"The delicate compromise, 380 pages long and three months in the making, represents perhaps the last opportunity for President Bush to win a major legislative accomplishment for his second term, and it could become the most significant revision of the nation's immigration system in 41 years. Bush hailed the agreement . . .

"But the compromises needed to win the support of a liberal lion such as Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and a conservative illegal-immigration foe such as Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) have made the bill extremely complex and have opened it to attacks from all sides.

"Democratic leaders were leery of three pivotal concessions to the conservatives. The first would make illegal immigrants' access to long-term visas and the new guest-worker program contingent upon the implementation of the border crackdown. . . .

"Another sticking point came from the proposed replacement of an immigration system primarily designed to reunify families with a point system that would give new emphasis to skills and education. . . .

"Finally, immigrants coming into the country under the temporary work program would have to leave when their permits expire, with no chance to appeal for permanent residence. Labor unions say such a system would depress wages and create an underclass."

The critique from the right is less subtle: "The president is so desperate for a legacy and a domestic policy win that he is willing to sell out the American people and our national security," Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.), told Weisman.

Robert Pear and Jim Rutenberg write in the New York Times: "The deal sets the stage for a rare victory for Mr. Bush, who set a goal of establishing a new immigration system at the start of his presidency but saw it stymied by his own party.

"As the governor of Texas, Mr. Bush had seen firsthand the challenges of border security and the lengths to which impoverished Mexicans were willing to go to enter this country illegally. What he depicted as 'a rational immigration system' -- one that would offer a temporary-worker program and a way for those who have set up working lives here illegally to become citizens -- was a major part of his 'compassionate conservative' agenda.

"But the Sept. 11 attacks derailed his plan, and by the time he set out to enact it in his second term conservatives were livid over what they called deplorably inadequate efforts to secure the border. That anger, repeated nightly on talk radio and by the CNN host Lou Dobbs, remains, and is seen within the Republican Party as a motivating force for conservative voters in the next presidential election."

As Pear and Rutenberg note: "Tony Snow, the White House press secretary, defended the proposal in a television appearance on 'Lou Dobbs Tonight,' whose host has become one of the most vocal critics of Mr. Bush's immigration policy.

"Mr. Dobbs opened the program by calling the deal an apparent victory for 'the pro-illegal-alien lobby.' The administration was 'hellbent on creating a North American union without the consent of the American people,' he said, and the plan could 'threaten national sovereignty and security as well.' "

Here's the CNN transcript. In a nod to the audience, Snow didn't emphasize the humanitarian or pragmatic aspects of the compromise -- he talked about how the rules required immigrants to "keep their noses clean."

And rather than challenge Dobbs, Snow praised him: "And Lou, I'll tell you. You can congratulate yourself in this sense. People now spend a lot more time thinking seriously about security."

Carolyn Lochhead writes in the San Francisco Chronicle: "The bipartisan 'grand bargain' on immigration announced Thursday -- promising the most sweeping changes to U.S. immigration law in more than two decades -- met a swift onslaught from the no-amnesty right and a warm, if qualified, embrace from leading pro-immigrant groups on the left."

The Washington Post editorial board describes the bill's central political trade-off this way: "Legalization for 12 million immigrants already here in return for second-class status for hundreds of thousands of future low-skilled workers the U.S. economy needs each year."

Comey Watch

I wrote in yesterday's column about the continuing fallout from former deputy attorney general James Comey's hair-raising testimony Tuesday about the 2004 revolt by top Justice Department officials against President Bush's warrantless wiretapping program. (Here's the video.)

And I noted that in Bush's joint press availability with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Bush refused to answer a question on the topic. Here's the transcript.

"Q Thank you, sir. There's been some very dramatic testimony before the Senate this week from one of your former top Justice Department officials, who describes a scene that some senators called 'stunning,' about a time when the wireless -- when the warrantless wiretap program was being reviewed. Sir, did you send your then Chief of Staff and White House Counsel to the bedside of John Ashcroft while he was ill to get him to approve that program? And do you believe that kind of conduct from White House officials is appropriate?

"PRESIDENT BUSH: Kelly, there's a lot of speculation about what happened and what didn't happen; I'm not going to talk about it. It's a very sensitive program. I will tell you that, one, the program is necessary to protect the American people, and it's still necessary because there's still an enemy that wants to do us harm.

"And therefore, I have an obligation to put in place programs that honor the civil liberties of the American people; a program that was, in this case, constantly reviewed and briefed to the United States Congress. And the program, as I say, is an essential part of protecting this country.

"And so there will be all kinds of talk about it. As I say, I'm not going to move the issue forward by talking about something as highly sensitive -- highly classified subject. I will tell you, however, that the program is necessary.

"Q Was it on your order, sir?

"PRESIDENT BUSH: As I said, this program is a necessary program that was constantly reviewed and constantly briefed to the Congress. It's an important part of protecting the United States. And it's still an important part of our protection because there's still an enemy that would like to attack us. No matter how calm it may seem here in America, an enemy lurks. And they would like to strike. They would like to do harm to the American people because they have an agenda. They want to impose an ideology; they want us to retreat from the world; they want to find safe haven. And these just aren't empty words, these are the words of al Qaeda themselves.

"And so we will put in place programs to protect the American people that honor the civil liberties of our people, and programs that we constantly brief to Congress. "

The Washington Post editorial board writes: "It doesn't much matter whether President Bush was the one who phoned Attorney General John D. Ashcroft's hospital room before the Wednesday Night Ambush in 2004. It matters enormously, however, whether the president was willing to have his White House aides try to strong-arm the gravely ill attorney general into overruling the Justice Department's legal views. It matters enormously whether the president, once that mission failed, was willing nonetheless to proceed with a program whose legality had been called into question by the Justice Department. That is why Mr. Bush's response to questions about the program yesterday was so inadequate....

"Yes, Mr. Bush backed down in the face of the threat of mass resignations, Mr. Ashcroft's included, and he apparently agreed to whatever more limited program the department was willing to approve. In the interim, however, the president authorized the program the Justice lawyers had refused to certify as legally permissible, and it continued for a few weeks more, according to former deputy attorney general James B. Comey's careful testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Under the Constitution, the president has the final authority in the executive branch to say what the law is. But as a matter of presidential practice, this is breathtaking.

"These are important topics for public discussion, and if anyone doubts that they can safely be discussed in public, they need look no further than Mr. Comey's testimony. Instead of doing so, Mr. Bush wants to short-circuit that discussion by invoking the continuing danger of al-Qaeda."

Dahlia Lithwick writes in Slate: "The story isn't who picked on a sick guy or even who did or didn't break laws. The story is who gets to decide what's legal. And the president's now-familiar claim, a la Richard Nixon, is that it's never illegal when he does it. . . .

"The psychodrama in Ashcroft's hospital room boils down to a rift between the people at Justice (Ashcroft, Comey, and Goldsmith) who believed even the president can cross a line into lawless behavior and those who simply don't."

And as if to illustrate her point, former Reagan and Bush 41 Justice Department official Douglas W. Kmiec writes in a Washington Post op-ed: "Comey's testimonial flourish is actually yet another rehashing of whether the president's responsibility as commander in chief (under Article II) and the broad grant of all 'necessary and appropriate' power given in military authorization by Congress trumps the ill-fitting FISA statute, which was drafted in peacetime and whose leisurely espionage structure arguably contemplates exceptions to its warrant regime premised on 'other statutes.'

"The FISA-presidential power spat invites reasonable legal minds to disagree, as Comey and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales do."

Deciding whether it was legal or not was "the president's call," Kmiec writes.

Daniel Klaidman and Michael Isikoff chat about the significance of Comey's testimony on the Newsweek Web site.

Says Isikoff: "[I]t's hard to judge since we simply don't know for sure what precisely Comey was objecting to -- and what precisely Bush did to assuage Comey's concerns. And let's remember, there has to be a significant paper trial here. . . . So far, the White House and Justice Department have essentially refused to turn anything over. But my guess is that the Senate Judiciary Committee now has the hook it needs to force the issue. . . . This could shape up as a major constitutional confrontation."

He adds that so far, "the debate over what is arguably the biggest single legal issue of the Bush presidency--whether the president engaged in large scale domestic spying outside the orbit of the law--is taking place entirely in the dark."

Gonzales Watch

Dan Eggen and Amy Goldstein write in The Washington Post: "Two leading Senate Democrats called for a vote of no confidence in Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales yesterday as political pressure for his resignation intensified in the wake of revelations about the plan to dismiss U.S. attorneys and Gonzales's role in a 2004 government crisis."

David Johnston and Neil A. Lewis write in the New York Times: "Mr. Gonzales's already shaky position eroded after reports this week about an episode in 2004 when as White House counsel he was involved in an apparent effort to circumvent Justice Department officials who had refused to renew authority for a secret domestic eavesdropping program. . . .

"And Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, who has not called for Mr. Gonzales's dismissal, came closer to saying that he was finished. 'I have a sense that when we finish our investigation, we may have the conclusion of the tenure of the attorney general,' Mr. Specter said at a meeting of the committee on Thursday."

The White House is dismissive of the plans for a no-confidence vote. White House spokesman Tony Fratto told reporters this morning it was just part of "the bottomless bag of tricks that Democrats in the Senate would like to pull out on a weekly basis, regarding the Attorney General. The Attorney General has the full confidence of the President."

Voter Fraud Watch

Margaret Talev and Marisa Taylor write for McClatchy Newspapers: "McClatchy Newspapers has learned that the top prosecutors in Macon, Ga., and Roanoke, Va., landed on a proposed firing list weeks after the White House and Justice Department traded notes about the potential for voter-fraud cases in central Georgia and Appalachia. They were added to a list just days before last November's midterm election, but ultimately not fired."

Valerie Plame Watch

Carol D. Leonnig writes in The Washington Post: "Attorneys for Vice President Cheney and top White House officials told a federal judge yesterday that they cannot be held liable for anything they disclosed to reporters about covert CIA officer Valerie Plame or her husband, former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV.

"The officials, who include senior White House adviser Karl Rove and Cheney's former chief of staff, I. Lewis 'Scooter' Libby, argued that the judge should dismiss a lawsuit filed by the couple that stemmed from the disclosure of Plame's identity to the media. . . .

"The lawyers said any conversations Cheney and the officials had about Plame with one another or with reporters were part of their normal duties because they were discussing foreign policy and engaging in an appropriate 'policy dispute.' Cheney's attorney went further, arguing that Cheney is legally akin to the president because of his unique government role and has absolute immunity from any lawsuit.

"U.S. District Judge John D. Bates asked: 'So you're arguing there is nothing -- absolutely nothing -- these officials could have said to reporters that would have been beyond the scope of their employment,' whether the statements were true or false?

" 'That's true, Your Honor. Mr. Wilson was criticizing government policy,' said Jeffrey S. Bucholtz, deputy assistant attorney general for the Justice Department's civil division. 'These officials were responding to that criticism.'"

James Vicini writes for Reuters: "Lawyer Michael Waldman, representing [former deputy secretary of state Richard] Armitage at the hearing before U.S. District Judge John Bates, cited a 'myriad of legal reasons why each claim fails' and said the lawsuit should be thrown out.

"'Put bluntly, your honor, this suit is principally based on a desire for publicity and book deals,' Waldman said. Plame has signed a book deal reportedly worth more than $2.5 million.

"Attorney John Kester, representing Cheney, said that allowing the case to proceed would result in the examination of CIA activities, including how Plame's duties changed after the disclosure of her identity.

" 'This is a fishing expedition, inevitably, about the duties at the CIA,' Kester said. 'The courts just don't go there and the court should not go there.'"

Bates didn't say when he would rule.

Wolfowitz Watch

Peter S. Goodman writes in The Washington Post: "World Bank President Paul D. Wolfowitz resigned yesterday, effective June 30, yielding to demands from governments around the world that he leave to end the ethics controversy that has consumed the institution. . . .

"Staff members described a celebratory mood inside the World Bank's headquarters near the White House, with people embracing, singing songs and hoisting flutes of Champagne. . . .

"According to bank and Bush administration sources briefed on the negotiations, the White House on Wednesday demanded that Wolfowitz be allowed to stay for three months, fearing that otherwise an acting president would be put in place from within the bank. That could threaten the traditional American prerogative to select the head of the institution.

" 'They don't want to lose control,' a bank official said.

"Most of the board, and particularly the Europeans, wanted Wolfowitz to leave immediately, asserting that he has lost the trust of the staff. The administration ultimately settled for a compromise, the June 30 departure date, fearing that otherwise a caretaker president might be inserted by the board over American wishes."

Jeannine Aversa writes for the Associated Press: "The White House said it would move quickly to name a new candidate to run the bank.

"Bush 'will have a candidate to announce soon, allowing for an orderly transition that will have the World Bank refocused on its mission,' White House spokesman Tony Fratto said."

Blair Watch

Edward Luce writes in the Financial Times: "Tony Blair joined George W. Bush yesterday for his final White House appearance as British prime minister, an exercise that outdid its many precursors in the intensity of praise the two embattled leaders showered upon each other."

Dana Milbank writes in The Washington Post: "Six years and three months ago, the president and the prime minister met for the first time at Camp David and instantly proclaimed themselves smitten...

"It was a grayer Blair and a silver-maned Bush who walked from the Oval Office yesterday. Even the Rose Garden appeared uncharacteristically worn: Paint was chipping and peeling above the colonnade, and a couple of the shrubs had turned brown. Even the normal protocol was lacking. Several American reporters wore sunglasses -- a no-no in Bush world. The front row of British reporters didn't even rise with the crowd when the two leaders approached."

The Megaphone Lady

Ken Herman blogs for Cox News about Ann Wright and her megaphone: "The two of them combined today to make Wright the rare protester outside the White House who gets noticed by people on the other side of the fence.

" 'And you know,' British Prime Minister Tony Blair said during a Rose Garden news conference with President Bush, 'we can hear as we speak at this press conference -- I mean, I can't make out the words that they're shouting over there, but I bet they're not totally complimentary to either of us.'

" 'Wait a minute,' Bush said. 'I don't know about that.'

"Blair was correct. Wright believes Bush and Blair are war criminals."

Iraq Watch

John Ward Anderson writes in The Washington Post: "More than 60 people were killed and dozens wounded in mortar strikes, drive-by shootings, roadside explosions, suicide bombings and other violent attacks in Iraq on Thursday, as a new study warned that the country was close to becoming a 'failed state.' . . .

"A report released Thursday by Chatham House, a foreign policy research center in Britain, challenged the notion that violence in Iraq has subsided since the buildup of U.S. troops, saying, for instance, that car bombings had not diminished and arguing that radical groups were simply lying low.

" 'It can be argued that Iraq is on the verge of being a failed state which faces the distinct possibility of collapse and fragmentation,' the report said."

From the report's introduction: "There is not 'one' civil war, nor 'one' insurgency, but several civil wars and insurgencies between different communities in today's Iraq. Within this warring society, the Iraqi government is only one among many 'state-like' actors, and is largely irrelevant in terms of ordering social, economic, and political life. It is now possible to argue that Iraq is on the verge of being a failed state which faces the distinct possibility of collapse and fragmentation."

Benchmark Watch

Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush signaled yesterday that he is open to legislation imposing consequences on the Iraqi government if it does not meet certain benchmarks for progress and expressed confidence that he can soon reach agreement with congressional Democrats on a war spending bill.

"In response to reporters' questions, Bush twice declined to rule out penalizing the Iraqis for failing to achieve goals aimed at economic and political reconciliation, a concept advanced on Capitol Hill not just by Democrats but also by many Republicans. White House aides privately have said such accountability measures are on the table in their negotiations with Congress."

But what sorts of consequences are we talking about for failure to meet those benchmarks? Democrats want the consequences to include the withdrawal of American troops. But the White House only appears willing to accept financial sanctions.

Carl Hulse and Jeff Zeleny write in the New York Times: "Congressional leaders and the White House began what they said they hoped were the final talks on an Iraq war spending bill on Thursday as Democrats braced for potential defections by lawmakers leery of any compromise with President Bush.

"The likelihood that any final agreement will specify no withdrawal date for American troops from Iraq raised the possibility that antiwar Democrats will not support it, particularly in the House, and that the measure will need substantial Republican support to pass."

Opinion Watch

Paul Krugman writes in his New York Times op-ed column (subscription required): "Mr. Bush has degraded our government and undermined the rule of law; he has led us into strategic disaster and moral squalor.

"But the leading contenders for the Republican nomination have given us little reason to believe they would behave differently. Why should they? The principles Mr. Bush has betrayed are principles today's G.O.P., dominated by movement conservatives, no longer honors. In fact, rank-and-file Republicans continue to approve strongly of Mr. Bush's policies -- and the more un-American the policy, the more they support it. . . .

"What we need to realize is that the infamous ''Bush bubble,'' the administration's no-reality zone, extends a long way beyond the White House. Millions of Americans believe that patriotic torturers are keeping us safe, that there's a vast Islamic axis of evil, that victory in Iraq is just around the corner, that Bush appointees are doing a heckuva job -- and that news reports contradicting these beliefs reflect liberal media bias."

Joseph L. Galloway writes in his opinion column for the McClatchy Washington Bureau: "As of May 17th, there were 613 days left until Jan. 20, 2009, and the end of our long national nightmare as President George W. Bush and his Rasputin, Vice President Dick Cheney, shuffle off to their necessarily well-guarded retirement homes and onto the ash heap of history. So much of what they talked about doing in a new century and a new and different world never came to pass. So much of what they did to grow the power of the presidency and prune the constitutional safeguards crafted by our Founding Fathers, they never talked about. . . .

"The question is: How did such ordinary-looking men -- seemingly unable to carry out even the smallest non-political tasks of governing -- succeed in doing such extraordinary and lasting damage to our country, our military and our body politic in so few years? . . .

"The agencies of government -- the CIA, FBI, Treasury, Department of Defense and who knows who else -- use secret executive authority to suck up databases of personal information about ordinary Americans, without regard to their privacy rights, in a search for suspected terrorists.

"Have they found any using that information? Have they unearthed terror cells with more potential than the ones in Florida and New Jersey that were penetrated and perhaps manipulated by FBI informants? That sort of terrorist isn't half so frightening as George W. Bush and Dick Cheney.

"Over in Iraq, 150,000 American troops soldier on, attempting, at the cost of their own lives and limbs, to follow the orders of a president who still thinks he can pull victory out of defeat. A democratically elected but hopelessly divided Iraqi parliament feuds and dithers and contemplates its summer vacation while Americans and Iraqis die in increasing numbers in the streets outside the Green Zone, and the mortar and rocket fire lands inside that sanctuary with increasing frequency.

"Six-hundred-fourteen days, and counting. Nineteen months. It doesn't seem possible or even bearable."

Cartoon Watch

Rex Babin on the conductor guy; Walt Handelsman on the twilight zone.

Late Night Humor

Jon Stewart on the Comey testimony: "Holy [expletive]! Apparently the president of the United States sent his chief of staff and legal counsel to an ICU to convince a drugged-up, pancreatically-inflamed John Ashcroft to subvert the Constitution!"

Stewart shows Sen. Charles Schumer's reaction: "The story is a shocking one. It makes you almost gulp."

To which Stewart responds: "ALMOST? ALMOST GULP? What is it going to take to make you actually gulp? Do these guys have to sodomize the Declaration of Independence in front of you?"

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