Dubya Headed for Trouble on Immigration Policy

President Bush intends to push for major changes in the nation’s immigration policy despite misgivings voiced by congressional Republicans that in some instances approach hostility.

The president this week announced plans to work with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to reform immigration laws even though Senate Republicans pointedly refused to place the issue among the top concerns on this year’s agenda.

And shortly after Bush made his feelings known, an influential Republican, Rep. James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, introduced legislation that appears to run counter to the president’s moderate approach.

While Bush is promoting a guest worker program that will provide visas to some of the nation’s estimated 10 million undocumented workers, Sensenbrenner wants to require all those who apply for a driver’s license or identification card to prove they are legally in the country.

The debate over immigration policy presents one of the few instances where Bush and congressional Republicans, who control both the House and Senate, appear destined for a showdown. In the past, the GOP leadership has been able to round up the necessary votes for controversial White House initiatives, including Bush’s Medicare drug plan and intelligence reform.

In a few instances, the president has backed down. But Bush generally has been able to get what he wants out of Congress since assuming office in January 2001 and he said that immigration reform “will be one of my priorities.”

“I believe it’s necessary to reform the immigration system,” Bush told reporters at a Wednesday press conference. “I’m against amnesty. I’ve made that very clear. On the other hand, I do want to recognize a system where a willing worker and a willing employer are able to come together in a way that enables people to find work without jeopardizing a job that an American would otherwise want to do.”

Bush, whose familiarity with immigration issues dates back to his tenure as governor of Texas, said the changes he envisions will “make it easier to protect our borders.”

“People are coming to our country to do jobs that Americans won’t do to be able to feed their families,” Bush said. “And I think there’s a humane way to recognize that.”

The president is expected to raise immigration again when he delivers the State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress on Feb. 2.

Senate Republicans are reluctant to address the issue because, according to Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., “we don’t have a consensus.”

By contrast, in his opening address to the 109th Congress, House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois said rewriting the nation’s immigration laws will be his top priority and he intends to push for an early vote.

But the president’s view of reform and the vision of House Republicans may collide. Sensenbrenner said his committee won’t consider any proposal _ including something authored by the president _ until his bill to restrict drivers’ licenses is considered.

Regarding Bush’s call for guest visas, which some foes consider a backdoor amnesty initiative, Sensenbrenner said his committee is “going to be plenty busy with other priorities.”

Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., chairman of the Congressional Immigration Reform Caucus and a longtime critic of U.S. policy, has suggested that Bush is caving in to corporate interests that covet cheap labor.

(Reach Bill Straub at straubb(at)shns.com)