With a boldness nearing desperation, President Bush has staked his dwindling political fortunes on winning passage of a comprehensive immigration reform bill, an issue on which his badly divided Republicans have yet to reach a consensus.

Untypical of the Bush White House, the president presented his plan in a prime-time Oval Office address, accompanied by orchestrated leaks and pre- and post-speech press briefings, a mode of operation more typical of earlier administrations than this one.

The most eye-catching part of the plan was a proposal to send up to 6,000 National Guard troops to help seal the southern border while the Border Patrol is being reinforced. This seemed an open political ploy to placate GOP hard-liners whose own immigration plan is border security coupled with deportations.

Bush aides denied that the deployment amounted to militarization of the border, although it does lean in that direction. But the fair question is: What does it amount to? The Guard troops will be rotated in and out in two- to three-week deployments and be relegated to vague support duties for the Border Patrol.

But it would be a mistake to assume the Bush plan is cynical politics. He has been passionate and consistent about immigration reform. Appearing with visiting Australian Prime Minister John Howard, the president declaimed, “We’re a land of immigrants, and when we welcome somebody to our country who is here legally, willing to work and willing to realize a dream, (begin ital) it helps restore our soul (end ital).” Hardly the words of a politician seeking to make an issue go away.

The rest of his plan, Bush said, strives for a “rational middle ground” between amnesty, which no one is advocating, and mass deportations, which, unfortunately, some of his House allies are.

If one agrees that the status quo on immigration is increasingly unacceptable, Bush then has offered a reasonable starting framework for addressing the problem: a clear process for long-residing illegal immigrants to become legal and begin the citizenship process; a more arduous process for shorter-term illegals; increased detention facilities for newly arrived illegals; tamperproof IDs; a limited guest- and temporary-worker program; and stepped-up fines for employers.

The president insisted that his plan is a comprehensive whole and that Congress enact it that way rather than piecemeal. He faces an uphill battle. The House has already acted and shows little enthusiasm for revisiting immigration. If Bush’s plan is to become law, the Senate will have to take the lead.

It will not do his presidency any good if Bush comes away empty-handed. Not even halfway through his second term, this is probably his last chance at enacting a major initiative.

(Contact Dale McFeatters at McFeattersD(at)SHNS.com)