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THE IMMIGRATION DEBATE: SUPPORTERS AND OPPONENTS

GOP inflicts Bush's latest wounds

The president's setbacks on Iraq and immigration this week are especially painful because they're dealt by Republicans.

June 29, 2007|Noam N. Levey | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — President Bush began the week struggling to salvage his most important foreign and domestic initiatives: the war in Iraq and an overhaul of the nation's immigration laws.

He ends it closer to losing both than at any time in his presidency.

And in a remarkable reversal for a president who once commanded nearly unflagging loyalty from lawmakers in his party, those most responsible for his setbacks are Republicans.

On Monday, one of the party's most respected voices on foreign affairs, the former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, publicly declared Bush's Iraq strategy a failure and urged him to plan a withdrawal.

Four days later, Republican senators roundly rejected the sweeping immigration legislation he has championed all year.

Despite months of stumping by the president, intense lobbying on Capitol Hill by Cabinet secretaries and a last-minute commitment to spend $4.4 billion to toughen border security, just 12 GOP senators voted for what was probably the last major domestic initiative of the diminished White House.

Thirty-seven Republican lawmakers, including the Senate minority leader, voted to kill the immigration bill.

In a sign of the president's reduced clout, GOP lawmakers even publicly blamed the administration's failures for the bill's demise.

"This is about the American people losing faith in a government to do the things that we say we're going to do," said freshman Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker, ticking off intelligence failures in the run-up to the Iraq invasion, changing justifications for the war, the botched response to Hurricane Katrina and the recent inability of federal agencies to expedite passports.

In a brief statement, a grim-looking Bush sought to place blame for the bill's collapse on Congress, whose approval ratings are even lower than the president's.

"Congress really needs to prove to the American people that it can come together on hard issues," Bush said before quickly striding away and ignoring a question about whether he could have done more to build support for the legislation.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who has become increasingly sensitive about the Democrats' inability to enact their legislative priorities, failed to unite Democrats behind the bill.

Fifteen of the 48 Democrats present Thursday voted against the measure.

At the Capitol, Republican supporters of the bill went out of their way to praise Bush's efforts and dismiss suggestions that Bush had lost.

"I will be forever grateful to the president of the United States for asking the Senate to confront this problem," South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham said.

Many GOP lawmakers also noted that the failures to enforce current immigration laws that prompted them to oppose the bill predate Bush's 6 1/2 years in the White House.

But even some of the president's allies acknowledged the toll the administration's failures have had on the cause of immigration reform.

Americans "don't think we can control our borders, we can win a war, we can issue passports, we can solve other problems," said Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl, the third-ranking Republican in the Senate.

The defeat did not come for lack of effort.

Since January, when Bush called anew for immigration reform in his State of the Union address, he has traveled the country to sell a major overhaul in how the country treats legal and illegal immigrants.

Five times this year, he devoted his weekly radio address to the topic. This month, he made only his second visit to the Senate Republicans' weekly luncheon, pressing them to support the immigration bill.

And for weeks, he has dispatched Cabinet secretaries to the Capitol to lobby lawmakers. On Thursday, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and Commerce Secretary Carlos M. Gutierrez stood outside the Senate chamber where they grasped at lawmakers going to cast their votes.

Many senators did not stop.

And the vote wasn't even close.

When the Senate passed a less stringent immigration bill a year ago, which later died in the House, GOP support was roughly double what it was Thursday.

To be sure, the legacy of Bush's first 6 1/2 years is in no jeopardy of being erased, and this week the Supreme Court handed down several decisions reflecting its conservative majority, shaped by the president's two recent appointments.

But with several of the bill's champions openly conceding that immigration overhaul is dead, the issue appears likely to join Social Security overhaul as another major domestic initiative the president has had to abandon as his popularity has plummeted.

The president is struggling to preserve the education reforms he pushed through with the No Child Left Behind Act in his first term. His domestic anti-terrorism surveillance program is under attack on Capitol Hill by Democrats who say it infringes on privacy. Congressional Democrats are pushing ahead with energy legislation over the president's objections.

And it appears the war may soon face a similar fate.

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