A simple distinction explains why President Bush is unlikely to alter the outcome of the Senate debate on immigration reform, his visit to a Senate Republican luncheon yesterday notwithstanding. Despite his relatively low presidential approval rating, Bush has plenty of power. There's the veto and the executive order. He's commander-in-chief and boss of American foreign policy. What he lacks is influence.
Presidential power — the veto in particular — allowed the president to ward off Democratic efforts to attach timetables for withdrawal of American troops to the Iraq funding bill last month. Democrats didn't have the votes to override his veto of a bill with timetables.
But none of the constitutional powers of the presidency are useful to Bush in trying to sway Republican votes on immigration. Even the bully pulpit — speeches, press conferences, press availabilities — doesn't help much in the seventh year in office of an unpopular president.
What Bush needs is the ability to persuade Republican senators to vote for immigration reform — in a word, influence. If his popularity were high at the moment, his influence would be considerable. Republican senators would have to pay serious attention to his advice. With his popularity low, they don't.
The immigration bill has provoked an outburst of opposition felt on both sides of Capitol Hill. The offices of Republican senators, especially, have been flooded with phone calls and emails in opposition to the immigration bill.
The president heard from immigration reform supporters and critics alike at the luncheon. "It was a good give and take," said Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell. "We didn't expect anybody to stand up and holler that they had an epiphany." And nobody did.
A new idea for passing the bill was mentioned to the president by Senator Johnny Isakson of Georgia. He said the public's "confidence level" in Congress and the White House to secure the border is so low that it's jeopardizing passage for the bill.
Isakson said what's needed is an "emergency supplement" to finance the buildup of border security now, rather than waiting until the bill is approved by Congress and signed by Bush. That would show, he said, that Washington really intends to secure the border. If the lack of confidence "isn't addressed," he said, "you can't" pass the bill.
Since Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid pulled the immigration legislation from the Senate floor last week, it has remained in limbo. When he lost a vote to limit the debate, he blamed Bush and Republicans. McConnell said more Republican amendments should be debated, along with more Democratic ones. If Reid had not yanked the bill, it "could have been finished last night had we stayed on it," McConnell said yesterday after the luncheon.
Reid and the Senate Democrats sent the president a letter on Monday, saying he must get more Republicans to vote for a limit on debate. "It will take stronger leadership by you to ensure that opponents of the bill do not block its path forward," they said. "Simply put, we need many more than seven Republicans to vote for cloture [limiting debate] and final passage of this bill."
But this letter was disingenuous for two reasons. First, Reid must know that Bush's influence on Senate Republicans is at a low point. Second, Reid has set up a straw man. He is refusing to return the bill to the floor, saying too few Republicans would support cloture, and then blaming the president for it.
Republicans are preparing a list of ten or so amendments they want debated. In return, they would promise to back cloture and thus stop Republicans opposed to the bill from talking it to death. Reid knows this, too.
The ball is in Reid's court. Bush's ability to sway Republicans is minimal. But the president can't bring the immigration bill back to the floor. Only Reid has the power to do that.
By Fred Barnes