WASHINGTON — President Bush met with divided Senate Republicans on Tuesday in a bid to salvage his imperiled immigration initiative, but the Senate's Democratic leader says he wants assurance of adequate GOP support before he returns the stalled measure to the Senate floor.
Bush received a warm reception during the closed luncheon just across the hall from the Senate chamber, according to participants, but it was unclear if he converted any Republicans now opposed to the legislation. The bill would legalize nearly 12 million undocumented immigrants.
"Some members there believed that we need to move a comprehensive bill; some don't," Bush said in a brief appearance before a throng of reporters, acknowledging that immigration is a "highly emotional issue." But he called on senators and other Americans to get behind the measure, saying, "The status quo is unacceptable."
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., yanked the bill last week after Republicans blocked two procedural motions to begin winding down debate and proceed to a final vote.
Reid accused Republicans of attempting to kill the bill through a barrage of amendments. GOP leaders in turn, charged that Reid was trying to choke off legitimate efforts to make the bill more palatable.
After the president's appearance in the Capitol, Reid signaled a hard line and said he must be convinced that Republicans "have their own act together" before he brings the bill back up for a debate.
Saying that most of the Senate's 48 Republicans oppose the bill, Reid said GOP leaders must show that they can produce 25 Republican votes on behalf of the measure before he moves it forward. Democrats hold a slim 50-vote majority; there are also two independents.
"The question is, do the Republicans support their president's immigration bill?" Reid asked. "At this stage, it's a resounding no."
A bipartisan group of senators who produced the bill met later Tuesday to discuss a package of amendments that they hoped would break the deadlock and persuade Reid to reopen debate.
Several leaders of the group, known as the "grand bargainers," expressed optimism that they were closing in on agreement and could get the bill back onto the floor before Congress leaves for its Fourth of July recess.
In another development, a group of Republican senators urged Bush to present Congress with emergency legislation to quickly fund the border security initiatives in the bill, a move that could soften conservative opposition.
The president's appearance at the Republican policy luncheon, held each week to discuss top GOP legislative priorities, was his first since July 2001 and was scheduled before last week's setback over immigration.
Bush, who returned Monday night from a weeklong European trip, touched on several topics during the meeting. But the clear priority was his foundering immigration bill. Republicans are sharply divided on legalization, with many describing it as amnesty.
Bush recently scolded GOP critics for opposing the measure, but participants in the meeting said he took a more conciliatory tone and stressed that the bill is vital to securing the nation's borders.
"I would hope that the Senate majority leader has the same sense of desire to move that product that I do," Bush told reporters. "We've got to convince the American people that this bill is the best way to enforce the border."
Bush even made a no-hard-feelings gesture to one of the bill's foremost opponents, Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., and said he still planned to make a political appearance on Sessions' behalf.
Although Session restated his opposition before the president, he said Bush "handled it well" and "reaffirmed the affection we have for him."