People say a lot of things on the campaign trail, but when Texas Governor George W. Bush stood before conservative Iowa crowds in 1999 and talked about the urgency of immigration reform, it was hard not to believe he was speaking from the heart. "Family values do not stop at the Rio Grande," he said back then, and the felicitous phrase became a touchstone of compassionate conservatism for his campaign and his presidency. For Bush, making immigration fair and safe "is a matter of very strong personal commitment," says his spokesman, Tony Snow.
Bush is about to get his last chance to prove that that commitment is real. Immigration reform stands out as the unfulfilled promise of the Bush presidency, and as Congress prepares to debate a compromise bill in the coming weeks, Democratic leaders in the House and Senate say Bush's help is crucial. "We're going to need Republican votes," says Jim Manley, spokesman for Senate majority leader Harry Reid. "And we're going to need the President." But power is sluicing out of the White House, Iraq is draining the Administration's remaining energies, and the President is entering a difficult period with a Congress he has never treated with much respect.
November's Democratic victory in Congress should have improved Bush's odds of getting what he calls "comprehensive immigration reform": tightened border controls and work-site enforcement, a new guest-worker program and a solution to the problem of the U.S.'s 12 million illegal immigrants. Although some Democrats side with unions in opposition to the President's proposed guest-worker program, a majority favor his broad immigration reforms. At the same time, some of Bush's most outspoken Republican opponents lost in races to Democrats who back his position. Post-election polls showed Hispanic voters punishing Republicans, abandoning the G.O.P. in larger numbers than the rest of the electorate in what some analysts saw as a backlash against tough G.O.P. rhetoric on immigration. That impression may drive fence-sitting Republicans who represent Latinos to support Bush's moderate plans.
The election effect alone is not enough to deliver Bush the votes he needs, though, especially in the House. Privately, lawmakers and key aides in both parties are skeptical that he can make up those votes. Republicans say Bush's political weakness is too great to coerce enough wavering G.O.P. lawmakers to risk their seats out of loyalty to the President. "What leverage does he have? Not a lot," says a senior Senate Republican aide. Bush's influence has ebbed since the last Congress, when he failed to rally Republicans behind an immigration deal. Democrats say Bush's biggest problem is his style of dealing with Congress. "He likes to be the closer, bringing in the last five fence-sitters," says a senior House Democratic aide. "But this time he needs to engage early in the process to prove this is a real priority for him."
Bush's hardest challenge will be selling a fix for the 12 million illegal immigrants already living in the U.S. The new immigration bill, to be introduced in the Senate as early as next week by Democrat Ted Kennedy and Republican John McCain, will set most of them on a "path to citizenship." Opponents call that amnesty. Bush has been vague in his support for legalization. But Kennedy says that at a private meeting on Jan. 8, Bush gave him a commitment to back "comprehensive" legislation, which Kennedy believes is a commitment to granting them eventual citizenship.
One last opportunity for Bush may have come thanks to G.O.P. hard-liners. The only immigration bill that Congress managed to push through last session cracked down on illegal border crossing. At the same time, the Department of Homeland Security has stepped up work-site enforcement of laws banning the employment of illegal immigrants. The effect has been a marked labor shortage, especially in agriculture. Growers nationwide blame the shortage for losses in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. With business leaning on lawmakers to do something, the crackdown has "increased the chances of comprehensive immigration reform," says a senior Senate Republican aide.
Bush doesn't have much time. Democratic aides say Reid plans to get the new bipartisan bill to the floor this spring in the hope of forcing it through Congress before the presidential campaign paralyzes Washington. If it's not done by August, says one, "it's dead."