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President George W. Bush Tuesday beseeched Republican allies to resuscitate a moribund immigration bill, but appeared to change few minds on a sweeping bid to deal with 12 million illegal immigrants.
Hoping to debunk claims he is now a “lame duck”, Bush made a rare appearance at a weekly Senate Republican policy lunch, hoping to persuade conservatives to back one of his last hopes for a signature second term domestic achievement.
Congressional Republicans once snapped into line behind Bush, but deep into his second term, beset by bloodshed in Iraq and low approval ratings, his one-time allies are now being tugged towards a political future without him.
“Now’s the time to get it done. It’s going to take a lot of hard work, a lot of effort,” Bush said after emerging from the luncheon.
“We’ve got to convince the American people that this bill is the best way to enforce our border,” Bush said. “The White House will stay engaged.”
Democratic leaders pulled the bill from the Senate last week, after Republicans refused to agree to move towards a final vote, saying they had not been given enough time to amend it.
Backers of the bill accused conservative Republicans of trying to kill it with amendments designed to fracture the fragile cross-party coalition which produced the legislation.
Mitch McConnell, the top Republican in the Democratic-led Senate said the meeting had yielded no staggering progress.
“It was a good give and take. We didn’t expect anybody to stand up and holler that they had an epiphany,” he said.
Asked whether Bush had made any breakthroughs, Republican Senator Bob Bennett said simply “No.”
Senator Jeff Sessions, a sworn Republican opponent of the bill, who earlier told Bush to “back off” in a CNN interview, said Bush’s prestige had failed to sway him.
“I think this is so big it is not something you can do just because you like the president or don’t like the president,” he said.
The legislation dubbed a “grand bargain” would grant a path to legal status to illegal immigrants, strengthen border enforcement and initiate a low wage guest worker program.
It would also replace the current family dominated immigration system with a merit-based points formula and attempt to cut a huge backlog for permanent resident green card applicants.
To give the bill a second life, the Senate’s Democratic leader Harry Reid said Republicans must prove they have enough votes to pass it, saying 80 percent of his troops were already in favor.
“The Republicans have to come forward with the ability to show me they have 25 Republicans who will support this legislation,” Reid said.
Only seven Republicans voted to advance the bill last week, together with 37 Democrats and one independent — short of the 60 votes needed to keep the move alive.
Hitting back in the political blame game, Bush put the onus for reviving the initiative on Reid.
“I would hope that the Senate majority leader has that same sense of desire to move the product that I do, or the bill that I do,” the president said.
“I believe without the bill it’s going to be harder to enforce the border. The status quo is unacceptable,” he said.
Republican Senator Bob Corker said the meeting with Bush was in “no way an arm twisting session” but warned the dwindling window for passing the bill, meant it could prove impossible to assuage worries about border security.
“That is a very difficult issue to overcome in a short time.”
Reid on Monday wrote to Bush to bluntly tell him that the bill would not survive unless he showed “stronger leadership” on an issue which has carved deep fault lines in American politics.
The top Democrat has asked Republicans to bring him a package of amendments they want to raise by next week, before deciding whether to revive the bill.
Bush had been bullish on his capacity to sway reluctant Republicans: “I’ll see you at the bill signing,” he told reporters on Monday.
Strategists from both sides of the aisle believe that if the bill does not return to the Senate within weeks, it will wither away, and eventually die while US politics is consumed by the looming 2008 election.
Should it eventually pass the Senate, the immigration bill is assured a stormy welcome in the House of Representatives, where lawmakers are especially conscious of the issue’s importance to their 2008 election fights.