(Charles Dharapak ~ Associated Press)
WASHINGTON -- His party divided and his polls sagging, President Bush prodded rebellious Senate Republicans Tuesday to help resurrect legislation that could provide eventual citizenship for millions of illegal immigrants.
"It's a highly emotional issue," said Bush after a session in which several lawmakers bluntly told him their constituents do not trust the government to secure the nation's borders or weed out illegal workers at job sites.
To alleviate the concerns, the president said he was receptive to an emergency spending bill as a way to emphasize his administration's commitment to accelerated enforcement. One congressional official put the price tag at up to $15 billion.
"I don't think he changed any minds," conceded Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla., a supporter of the legislation. But Martinez added that the president's appearance had helped nudge "people on the fence" to be more favorably inclined.
One Republican widely viewed as a potential convert, Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, said he was not yet persuaded. "At the end of the day, I've got to be able to sit down and know myself that we are going to secure our border," he said. "Today, I do not feel that way."
Bush's trip to the Capitol marked only the second time since he became president that he attended the weekly closed-door senators lunch, a gesture that underscored the importance he places on passage of comprehensive immigration legislation.
Despite the president's commitment, many conservatives in his own party have criticized the measure as an amnesty for millions of lawbreakers. Additionally, job approval ratings in the 30-percent range make it difficult for the president to bend even Republican lawmakers to his will.
Compounding the challenge is a stream of statements from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., that it is up to Bush and the Republicans to produce enough votes to revive a measure that was sidetracked on the Senate floor last week. "We'll move on to immigration when they have their own act together," he told reporters during the day.
"Fourteen percent of the Republicans supporting the president's bill won't do the trick," he said, referring to the fact that only seven GOP senators supported a move to free the bill from limbo last week.
Several participants in the Republican meeting described the session as friendly and rancor-free, and said Bush had even made a joke at one point when addressing Sen. Jeff Sessions, the Alabama Republican who is one of the bill's fiercest critics.
One senator quoted Bush as telling Sessions, "Don't worry, I'll still go to your fund-raiser. We disagree about this, but we are friends."
Sessions was among the senators to question the president, pointing to polls showing widespread opposition to the legislation. Bush responded that there are other polls that show support, according to participants. They spoke on condition of anonymity, citing confidentiality rules covering the closed-door meeting.
These officials said numerous senators told Bush the public lacks confidence that the government would carry out the enforcement measures in the bill.
One, Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., told Bush that he and fellow Georgia Republican Johnny Isakson had sent the president a letter outlining the concerns.
"The message from a majority of Georgians is that they have no trust that the United States government will enforce the laws contained in this new legislation and secure the border first," it said.
"This lack of trust is rooted in the mistakes made in 1986, and the continued chaos surrounding our immigration laws. Understandably, the lack of credibility the federal government has on this issue gives merit to the skepticism of many about future immigration reform."
The letter asked Bush to support a spending bill to secure the border before other elements of the immigration measure go into effect. It did not specify how much money would be needed, but one congressional official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the advance costs could reach $10 billion to $15 billion.
"The administration should request the emergency funds, and the Senate should vote to provide them before resuming debate on the broader immigration measure," Chambliss said in an interview.
Apart from the additional funds, Republican and Democratic supporters of the bill hoped to complete work on an agreement that could free it for final passage by month's end.
Discussions center on a plan to allow votes on about a dozen Republican-sponsored amendments as well as several proposals by Democrats. In exchange, GOP holdouts would then support a move to end debate and advance the fill to a final vote.
Among the amendments was one by Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, to require all illegal immigrant household heads to return to their countries of origin before obtaining legal status. Under the legislation, only those seeking green cards -- permanent legal residency -- would be required to return home first.