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5/13: Bush to Unveil Plan to Tighten Border Controls
Released 13 May 2006  By JIM RUTENBERG - New York Times

Bush to Unveil Plan to Tighten Border Controls
May 13, 2006

WASHINGTON, May 12 - The White House said Friday that President Bush would open the next phase of the debate over illegal immigration next week with a strong emphasis on border security, including the possible use of more National Guard troops.

Mr. Bush was signaling an effort to reassure conservatives on an issue that has deeply divided his party.

The White House said Mr. Bush would deliver a televised address on Monday evening - his first on domestic policy from the Oval Office - to build public pressure on Congress at a crucial moment. The address will come as the Senate tries again to pass a bill that addresses both demands to stem the inflow of undocumented workers across the border with Mexico and the desire of American employers to have reliable access to a low-wage work force.

Mr. Bush has sought to walk a line between the position taken by Republicans in the House, who oppose any steps to legalize undocumented workers, and the Senate, where many Republicans favor granting some illegal aliens a path to citizenship. But his aides suggested that Mr. Bush had to mollify conservatives first if he was to succeed in winning a compromise.

White House officials said Mr. Bush had always understood the need to protect the border as a former governor of a border state, Texas. But they acknowledged they had perhaps erred in not emphasizing that understanding as they pushed provisions granting illegal immigrants working here legal status, angering Republicans.

"I think members of the House will like what they hear on border security," a senior administration official told reporters during a briefing at the White House. Entry to the briefing was conditioned on anonymity.

White House officials said Mr. Bush was considering proposals to increase the number of law enforcement and military personnel patrolling the border; to accelerate the use of high-tech surveillance tools and to step up enforcement against illegal workers and their employers.

Three high-level officials : one in the administration, one in the military and one in the governor's office of a border state - said one plan being considered would provide money to states to get more National Guard troops in place to support the Border Patrol. But, these officials said, such a move would be intended to be temporary while the federal government works on training more full-time border security agents.

"The question is how best can we deploy assets to have the most immediate impact?" the senior administration official said. "Part of that aspect is, 'Let's contemplate if there could be a National Guard role.' "

Also on Friday, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld met at the Pentagon with Mexico's defense minister, Gen. Gerardo Clemente Ricardo Vega. Officials said they had discussed, among other things, potential United States help in training and equipping Mexican forces at the border.

The approach that will be on the Senate floor next week contrasts sharply with legislation already passed by the House, which would try to seal off the border and would crack down on illegal immigrants and those who employ or harbor them.

Senate leaders expect to approve the compromise legislation within the next two weeks, starting an expected round of tough negotiations between the House and the Senate that the president will likely try to mediate.

"This is crunch time," the new White House press secretary, Tony Snow, told reporters Friday.

The White House was awaiting word from the major networks as to whether they would all carry his address on Monday evening during their crucial sweeps rating period used to set advertising prices. NBC and Fox have agreed to take the address, as have the cable news networks; CBS and ABC are still considering whether they will upset their schedules to take the address.

Mr. Bush has typically stayed out of legislative fights until the final stages of the process, but in this case he has come under pressure from Republican leaders on Capitol Hill to weigh in more forcefully if he wants legislation to pass this year.

"It's going to help us a lot in the debate," Senator Mel Martinez, Republican of Florida, said of the president's planned address. Mr. Martinez, a sponsor of the compromise legislation in the Senate, added, "A good strong statement on border security is the best thing he can do."

In deciding to raise the political stakes by having Mr. Bush deliver a national address on such a divisive issue, the White House is also trying to reassert Mr. Bush's presidential power more generally at a time when his approval ratings are touching new lows and his conservative base is increasingly unhappy with his stance on a number of issues, including immigration.

The unrest among conservatives is worrying Republican members of Congress who are facing re-election this year and are increasingly airing their disagreements with the White House publicly. The use of military personnel in the form of an increased National Guard presence along the border would be a potent political symbol. Governors already have the authority to send their National Guard troops to carry out these missions, and some have done that. Officials did not say how many troops could potentially be used at the border - adding there are potentially a few hundred now - but disputed reports that the number could be as high as 10,000.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California said in Sacramento that using Guard troops was "not the right way to go," in part because many were just returning from Iraq.

Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico, a Democrat, complained that he still did not have as many border patrol agents as he had been promised. Mr. Richardson said that his National Guard contingent was already spread thin and that he needed those who were home to help contain wildfires. "What I need the most is border patrol agents," he said.

But the White House has been busily consulting with Congressional members, especially those from border states. The White House deputy chief of staff, Karl Rove, has been holding meetings with antsy conservatives to get them on board with the president.

"I've been real frustrated with this issue," said Representative Kevin Brady, a Texas Republican who attended one of the meetings with Mr. Rove this week. "But Karl Rove seems determined to secure the border, and I like the focus on results right now."

Is he inclined to sign off on guest-worker provisions? "Let's not put the cart before the horse," Mr. Brady said.

The White House says that plenty of conservatives agree with the president but that it will work hard to win the others over. "That's something we're going to have to try to work through and reconcile," the senior official said.

Thom Shanker contributed reporting for this article.

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