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New York Times - President's Push on Immigration tests GOP's Base

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Location: Washington, DC

President's Push on Immigration tests GOP's BaseNew York Times -

By Jim Rutenberg and Carl Hulse
New York Times

June 3, 2007

WASHINGTON — President Bush's advocacy of an immigration overhaul and his attacks on critics of the plan are provoking an unusually intense backlash from conservatives who form the bulwark of his remaining support, splintering his base and laying bare divisions within a party whose unity has been the envy of Democrats.

It has pitted some of Mr. Bush's most stalwart Congressional and grass-roots backers against him, inciting a vitriol that has at times exceeded anything seen yet between Mr. Bush and his supporters, who have generally stood with him through the toughest patches of his presidency. Those supporters now view him as pursuing amnesty for foreign lawbreakers when he should be focusing on border security.

Postings on conservative Web sites this week have gone so far as to call for Mr. Bush's impeachment, and usually friendly radio hosts, commentators and Congressional allies are warning that he stands to lose supporters — a potentially damaging development, they say, when he needs all the backing he can get on other vital matters like the war in Iraq.

"I think President Bush hurts himself every time he says it is not amnesty," said Senator Tom Coburn, Republican of Oklahoma, referring to the bill's legalization process for immigrants. "We are not all that stupid."

This week, after Mr. Bush's suggestion that those opposing the Congressional plan "don't want to do what's right for America" inflamed conservative passions, Rush Limbaugh told listeners, "I just wish he hadn't done it because he's not going to lose me on Iraq, and he's not going to lose me on national security." He added, "But he might lose some of you."

Such sentiments have reverberated through talk radio, conservative publications like National Review and Fox News. They have also appeared on Web sites including RedState.com and FreeRepublic.com, where postings reflect a feeling that Mr. Bush is smiting his own coalition in pursuit of a badly needed domestic accomplishment, and working in league with the likes of Senator Edward M. Kennedy, a co-author of the legislation.

White House officials said it had led them to engage the blogosphere in a concerted way for the first time, posting defenses on liberal and conservative sites.

The tensions, which have rippled through the Republican presidential field, are intensifying just as the Senate is preparing to renew debate on the measure next week. Opponents are seeking significant changes — or outright defeat of the legislation — and raising the specter of a filibuster. The battle has pitted the White House against a group that includes even Mr. Bush's reliable supporters from his home state of Texas, Senators Kay Bailey Hutchison and John Cornyn, both Republicans.

White House officials said it was a debate they welcomed in pursuit of a long-sought presidential goal, but in interviews this week, they expressed frustration at what they described as ill-informed criticism that the bill provided amnesty for illegal immigrants when it in fact traded legal status for fines and fees — more than $6,000 for green card holders, officials said. They also noted that the most recent New York Times/CBS News poll showed 66 percent of Republicans supported its legalization provisions.

Karl Rove, Mr. Bush's top political adviser, said Friday he was confident that the White House would win over its critics as it explained the details of the bill and the administration's continuing efforts to enforce existing border control laws.

Mr. Rove said he did not think that anger over immigration within the party would affect support for the president on the war and other national security issues. "People are able to say, ‘I don't need to agree with anyone 100 percent of the time to be with them on the most important issue facing America,' " he said.

But that same day, Peggy Noonan, the Wall Street Journal opinion writer and former Reagan speechwriter who has supported Mr. Bush, said, "What conservatives and Republicans must recognize is that the White House has broken with them," in a column under the heading, "President Bush has torn the conservative coalition asunder."

Democrats have their own serious differences on immigration, with many worried that the Senate plan is too punitive. Others who are closely allied with labor are fearful about the impact on job opportunities, and still others oppose any plan that allows illegal immigrants to earn citizenship. But the Democratic divisions have been all but lost in the loud and volatile clashes among Republicans.

Reflecting the division between the business wing, Congressional moderates and the rest of the party, the editorial board of National Review, which opposes the legislation, has issued a debate challenge to The Journal's business-minded editorial board, which is more supportive. (The Journal editorial page editor, Paul Gigot, dismissed the challenge, saying National Review writers had not accepted offers to appear on The Journal's program on Fox to discuss the matter.)

Opposition to Mr. Bush's immigration plan, which calls for a way to legalize illegal workers who are here now, has been stiff for years. But last year, when similar legislation was under debate, opponents were rightly confident that Republican leaders who controlled Congress would not let it progress. Mr. Bush, not wishing to intensify the fight in an election year, stayed behind the scenes and relented when the legislation died.

Not so this year, when Mr. Bush's personal involvement in brokering a bipartisan immigration deal, and his clear determination to push for its passage, has intensified criticism from grass-roots and legislative leaders of his own party to the highest levels of his presidency. The criticism reflects a central tension between Mr. Bush's pursuit of a defining domestic policy accomplishment and the party's concerns about its 2008 prospects when base voters are so angry about immigration.

Mr. Bush's comments to federal law enforcement trainees in Georgia on Tuesday, in which he took the rare step of going after conservative critics in terms usually reserved for Democrats, has charged the Republican ferment, specifically his suggestion that those opposed to the plan "don't want to do what's right for America."

Presidential aides said later that Mr. Bush did not mean to impugn anyone's patriotism, and that he had ad-libbed the line during a passionate address on an issue he holds dear.

But days later, Mr. Cornyn still seemed rankled. "I honestly don't know whether it was scripted or unscripted," he said. "But I think it was uncalled for."
In its online editorial in which it challenged The Wall Street Journal to a debate, National Review referred to an Internet video on The Journal's Web site of an editorial board meeting in which Paul Gigot, the editorial page editor, referred to what he calls "the degree to which the right isn't even rational about this anymore." National Review wrote, "It shouldn't be a problem for The Journal's editors to take up this challenge, since opponents of the bill aren't ‘rational' on the question."

The debate has bled into the campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, providing fodder for one of the sharpest exchanges so far, between Senator John McCain of Arizona, who supports the bill, and former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, who has come out against it.

Caught in the middle of the broader fight, the Republican National Committee has seemed to have taken less of a supporting role than on other White House initiatives, though Senator Mel Martinez, chairman of the committee and a strong backer of the compromise, said its support was unwavering.

(Republican Party officials disputed parts of a report in The Washington Times linking a decision to fire dozens of phone bank employees to a decline in small donations that the paper reported was partly caused by disaffection over immigration.)

The Republican vs. Republican debate has also played out intensively for lawmakers back home. Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina, a critic of the measure, said he had heard from people who were upset not only with the legislation, but also with his Republican colleague from the state, Senator Lindsey Graham, one of the measure's architects. "I discourage that kind of talk," Mr. DeMint said. "We are good friends, and he is a great senator. We are just in disagreement on this particular issue."

The Republican and conservative critiques on the Internet are not so polite. "Bush has turned on his own people, his political supporters," wrote a visitor to a message board on the conservative Web site FreeRepublic.com. Another visitor wrote, "Why have I cared that liberals not attempt to impeach this man? He's gone crazy."

Mr. Rove and Dan Bartlett, the White House counselor, said officials would continue trying to persuade critics.

And some White House allies were trying to cool tensions. Mr. McCain, who had a salty clash with Mr. Cornyn over the legislation when it was being drafted, said Friday, "The president, and all of us, feel frustrated sometimes by the criticism and the level of the dialogue," adding, "I wish we could lift up the level of discourse and dialogue."

The president's brother, Jeb Bush, and his former campaign manager, Ken Mehlman, wrote an op-ed article in The Wall Street Journal pleading the case for the legislation, saying that the debate, "has led many close personal and ideological friends — people we respect and whose criticism we take seriously — to oppose new rules governing how people enter this country and how we handle those who are here illegally. But we hope our friends reconsider."

Jeff Zeleny contributed reporting from Des Moines. This article also appeared in: the San Francisco Chronicle (6/3/07), The Tampa Tribune (6/3/07), and the International Herald Tribune (France) (6/2/07).


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