WASHINGTON - President Bush tried to revive his stalled immigration bill Thursday by reaching out to conservatives with a plan for an immediate $4.4 billion investment in border security and enforcement.
The offer, possibly Bush's last chance to salvage the legislation, heartened the president's allies, but drew mixed reviews from the bill's opponents. While some welcomed the proposed cash infusion, others said it would not alter their determination to defeat any plan that calls for legalizing millions of undocumented workers.
The $4.4 billion would be borrowed from the U.S Treasury and paid back over time with fees and fines collected from immigrants and their employers. The money would pay for fencing, vehicle barriers, surveillance towers and other enforcement measures that were already in the immigration bill.
Bush endorsed a proposed amendment by Sens. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., that would add the funding guarantee to the bill.
"We're going to show the American people that the promises in this bill will be kept," Bush said. "I call on the senators to pass this amendment and show the American people that we're going to do our jobs of securing this border once and for all."
Bush's overture to conservatives was intended to help clear the way for more Senate debate on the legislation, which appeared doomed last week when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., pulled it from the chamber's agenda.
Reid said he would bring the bill up for debate again if Bush could rally more Republican support.
"This is like a horse with four broken legs that the president keeps trying to put back on the track," said Bob Dane, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which strongly opposes Bush's plan. "Certainly it will get it back on the Senate floor. But the sentiment of the American public hasn't changed. They lit a fire last week, and they'll light it again. "
The president's offer to guarantee funding for tougher enforcement did not satisfy critics who consider the bill an amnesty plan for illegal immigrants. Workers who entered the country illegally could gain legal status by paying a $1,000 fine and obtaining a visa, renewable indefinitely. The path to citizenship would be more difficult.
Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., a leading opponent, wasn't mollified.
"I appreciate the effort to fund border security, but there's simply no reason why we should be forced to tie amnesty to it," DeMint said in a statement. "If the administration was serious about fulfilling the border security promises, then this funding should have been supported all along, not offered at the last minute to attract votes to a bad bill."
Even the two Republican senators from Bush's home state of Texas, Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison and John Cornyn, called Bush's move a positive step, but both said they remain opposed to the bill in its present form.
"It may be too late for them to revive this bill," said Cornyn. "What we're dealing with ... is deep-seated skepticism among many of my constituents."
But Sen. Graham, a bill backer, said "having the funding guaranteed is a significant step toward confidence-building."
He predicted that the Senate will pass a revised measure before the July 4th recess.
"I think it will get out of the Senate," Graham said. "I hope it's north of 60 in terms of final passage votes. If that occurs, it will be a good thing because it will put pressure on the House to pass the bill."
The 627-page Senate bill mandates a number of so-called triggers to toughen border enforcement before two other controversial elements - a foreign guest worker program and the legalization of up to 12 million illegal immigrants - can go into effect. The initiatives include boosting the Border Patrol to 18,000 agents, erecting 370 miles of border fencing and creating an electronic verification system that all employers would have to use to check workers' eligibility.
The proposed overhaul has turned into a key test of Bush's clout in the remaining 18 months of his presidency. Even Republicans concede that the Iraq war and Bush's sagging poll numbers have reduced his influence with Congress.
Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla., said immigration is a particularly tough issue for Bush because some of his opponents are beyond persuasion.
"He can only do so much," Martinez said. "It's very helpful he continues to lead. It's very helpful he's not backing down. ... I'm not suggesting to you that he changed the minds of people who are hardcore against this bill."
James Rosen and Lesley Clark contributed.