Will Bush flip-flop on immigration?

| Wed Jul. 5, 2006 7:01 PM EDT

Joe Klein is going to be terribly disappointed. Here he is writing in May about the split between the White House and the Congressional GOP over immigration policy. The column ran under the headline, "Bush Is Smart on the Border--and the G.O.P. Isn't"

George W. Bush's position on immigration has been consistent and honorable, even when he was clawing his way toward the Republican nomination in 2000, facing conservative audiences who inevitably asked hostile questions about the Mexicans coming across the border. ... He stood by his principles again last week in his prime-time speech, promising to make a greater effort to protect the border while refusing to cave to conservative pressure against a pathway toward citizenship for the 12 million illegals already here. ...[I]t is never easy going against your party's base. ...

[T]he strongest feelings against immigrants tend to come from the places—red-state rural counties—where immigrants don't exist: 59% of voters in counties where immigrants make up less than 5% of the population believe that all illegals should be deported. That constituency is as ancient as the Republic, perennially exploited by unscrupulous politicians who are willing to play to their racial fears—the Democrats for a century after the Civil War, the Republicans ever since.

Today comes word that Bush is signalling, as the New York Times puts it, "a new willingness to negotiate with House Republicans in an effort to revise the stalled [immigration] legislation before Election Day.

Republicans both inside and outside the White House say Mr. Bush, who has long insisted on comprehensive reform, is now open to a so-called enforcement-first approach that would put new border security programs in place before creating a guest worker program or path to citizenship for people living in the United States illegally. ...

Polls show the public is deeply troubled by the problem of illegal immigration, and Mr. Bush, who has made the issue his domestic policy initiative, is eager for a victory on Capitol Hill. But a carefully constructed White House strategy to prod the House and Senate into compromise collapsed last month when skittish House Republicans opted for field hearings instead. ...

One major question is whether Mr. Bush would give up on a path to citizenship for some of the estimated 11 million to 12 million people living here illegally. He has said repeatedly that it is impractical to deport those who have lived in the United States for a long time and built lives here; the Senate bill permits some longtime illegal residents to become eligible for citizenship if they learned English and paid taxes and a fine. ...

Whether Mr. Bush would accept that is not clear. Aides to Mr. Bush, including Karl Rove, the White House chief political strategist, and Tony Snow, the press secretary, say he remains adamant that any bill must address the status of the immigrants who are here illegally.

But one Republican close to the White House, granted anonymity to discuss internal deliberations, predicted that Mr. Bush would ultimately abandon the idea of a path to citizenship.

And if he does, immigration reform will die this year, and it'll be much harder to make a case for Bush's "consistency and honor" on the issue.