The bitter fight over a comprehensive immigration overhaul has pushed President Bush and his fellow Republicans to the brink of divorce -- and, for the first time, the opportunities for reconciliation appear severely limited.
House leaders played down the friction Wednesday, but Republicans have predicted a showdown with the White House over immigration since Democrats took control of Congress last fall. And that longstanding tension spilled out Tuesday when GOP lawmakers voted overwhelmingly to reject the Senate -- and, by turns, the White House -- immigration overhaul.
This immigration fight marks yet another low ebb for the White House, and the path forward looks rocky, as GOP support for the war in Iraq teeters.
The president needs Republican support to maintain troop levels in Iraq, and the calls this week by a pair of GOP senators -- Dick Lugar of Indiana and George Voinovich of Ohio -- to reduce U.S. troop levels in Iraq have spurred concerns that moderate Republicans will publicize their opposition to the war before Army Gen. David Petraeus reports to Congress in September on the progress of the president's troop surge.
The administration is also struggling to renew No Child Left Behind, the signature education initiative of Bush's first term that passed despite concerns from numerous conservative Republicans.
Those concerns have been amplified in the intervening years, with House Minority Whip Roy Blunt (Mo.) and other leaders vocally opposing the law as it was initially written.
Republicans suggest many members have been waiting all year to pounce on an immigration overhaul and the reauthorization of his signature education program.
"We've all been aware of the president's priorities" since the beginning of the year, said Republican Conference Chairman Adam Putnam of Florida.
Republicans theatrically opposed the Senate's comprehensive immigration overhaul last summer. But the vitriol spiked again Tuesday during two closed-door sessions in which House Republicans considered a symbolic resolution opposing the Senate bill.
"This is our magic carpet ride," one lawmaker proclaimed to the applause of his colleagues, according to a member present.
Rep. Pete Hoekstra of Michigan said he and a group of fellow Republicans decided to move forward with their resolution rejecting the Senate bill after Bush berated opponents who called the legislation "amnesty."
The White House had wanted Republican leaders to prevent members from voting on Hoekstra's measure the same week the Senate renewed consideration of the issue, a member and two leadership aides said, asking Minority Leader John A. Boehner (Ohio) to throw up a procedural roadblock forcing members to suspend consideration of the resolution.
But Republican leaders, already sympathetic to their members' overwhelming opposition to the Senate bill, knew Hoekstra would have more than enough votes to override the proposed stalling tactics and rejected the White House plan.
"The White House wasn't happy about it, but after the vote yesterday they certainly understand it," one Republican leader said.
At the White House, press secretary Tony Snow said, "There are going to be some who are not going to vote with us; we understand that.
"We hope that in the House we'll be able, on a bipartisan basis, to put together the votes we need,'' he added.
Among the Republican leadership in the House, Boehner has moved away from the White House since casting a vote in 2005 against legislation establishing a national standard for state-issued identification cards. He opposed that measure because it would establish new regulations requiring employers to verify the citizenship of their workers -- something in the current reform package -- and last month he called the Senate bill "a piece of shit" because it doesn't go far enough to prevent illegal immigrants frocrossing the border and securing jobs. He has also tacitly supported Hoekstra and others who want to derail a comprehensive overhaul.
Putnam was viewed as the one member of elected leadership most likely to accept a comprehensive immigration package, but he decided to oppose the Senate bill after members rejected an amendment offered by Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) to deport convicted felons, something supporters viewed as a poison pill.
And Rep. John B. Shadegg (R-Ariz.), another prominent supporter of comprehensive reform, worked with Hoekstra to introduce the resolution.
Other Republicans expressed skepticism that federal agencies can implement provisions in the bill. They are concerned, for example, that the Department of Homeland Security will not be able to establish an employer verification system when there is so much trouble meeting new passport requests.
Given the standoff, Republicans are trying to shift the emphasis to House Democrats, who are more divided over comprehensive immigration reform -- if only because House Republicans appear unified against it.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) has urged the White House to corral 70 GOP votes before she brings an immigration package to the floor. But backers suggest that number now hovers between 20 and 30, and they point out that the speaker will face significant pressure from Hispanic groups to move a reform measure in some form.
"She has dodged it as long as she can," Putnam said.
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