Bush on the run to mend fences

President George BushPresident George W. Bush on Saturday rushed to patch up a sudden rift with his most faithful Republican allies, who have supported him on Iraq but have revolted against a White House-backed immigration reform proposal.

With top conservatives crying "sellout," the president used his weekly radio address to emphasize the hurdles rather than the opportunities the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants living in the country will have to face if they choose to legalize their status.

"This legislation will end chain migration by limiting the relatives who can automatically receive green (permanent resident) cards to spouses and minor children," Bush said.

Decisions on admitting future immigrants will be based on the level of applicants' professional skills, education and English proficiency rather than family ties to those already in the United States.

Some conservative analysts have expressed concern the reform may pave the way to the United States for as many as 50 million newcomers over the next several decades because legalization will make the 12 million illegals now in the country eligible to bring in family members.

The bipartisan compromise, announced by a group of US senators with great fanfare on Thursday, establishes a temporary worker program that illegal aliens would be able to join by applying to a renewable "Z" visa and paying a 1,000-dollar fine.

But it will allow program participants to eventually seek permanent residency and citizenship, although only after returning to their countries of origin and paying an additional 4,000 dollar fine.

Bush reiterated his support for the proposal on Saturday, saying the reform will "restore respect for the law, and meet the legitimate needs of our economy."

But he is facing a mutiny on the right flank of the Republican Party, which has staunchly supported him on the war in Iraq and now feels betrayed over the immigration issue.

"It's a big government fantasy with no hope of becoming reality," said Newt Gingrich, a former Republican speaker of the House of Representatives who is considering a 2008 White House run.

Republican Representative Tom Tancredo, a longshot presidential candidate, called the immigration plan "a slap in the face" of hard-working Americans.

"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," said Tancredo, a hardliner on illegal immigration.

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney argued the plan amounted to amnesty, while Senator Elizabeth Dole vowed to oppose it "unless it is radically altered."

Senator Jeff Sessions, an Alabama Republican who has strongly supported the president on Iraq, declared himself "deeply concerned" by the bill, while John Cornyn from the border state of Texas said he "simply cannot, and will not, support any legislation" offering undocumented aliens amnesty.

Even Senate Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Bush's unwavering right-hand man in Congress, was unable to endorse the bill, promising only to "review" it.

The Democratic-led Senate was expected to take a procedural vote Monday to move the proposed legislation to debate.

With the fate of the reform uncertain and relations with allies strained, Bush made it a point to emphasize elements of the bill conservatives might like.

"I realize that many hold strong convictions on this issue, and reaching an agreement was not easy," he said.

Bush also moved to give new hope to conservatives, who have long called for making English the official language of the United States.

"This bill affirms that English is the language of the United States," Bush said without elaborating.