Washington — To hear President Bush and his strategists describe it, tougher border security and compassion for illegal immigrants are both in the nation's interest and winning election-year politics.
Republican Rep. Tom Osborne, of Nebraska, might beg to differ.
His recent disastrous brush with immigration politics shows how difficult it will be for the Republican-controlled Congress to pass legislation on the issue this year - even though many GOP lawmakers recognize their success in November voting may depend on their ability to deliver.
Osborne, a legendary former University of Nebraska football coach and a third-term congressman, partially blames the issue for his recent loss to incumbent Dave Heineman in the governor's race primary.
"Illegal immigration puts a burden on our taxpayers," Heineman said in campaign ads after vetoing legislation to make children of illegal immigrants eligible for in-state tuition at Nebraska schools.
Osborne sided with supporters of the state legislation. "I said I really don't think you punish children for what their parents did," he said in a recent interview in the Capitol. Voters were given information that was not completely accurate, he added. "I don't think they really understood."
Osborne is hardly an amnesty advocate. He introduced legislation that requires illegal immigrants to return to their home country and seek the papers necessary to return legally to the United States.
In fact, politicians in both parties report that initial voter response is often hostile to legislation along the lines that Bush favors and the Senate passed last week. Sen. Ben Nelson, of Nebraska, seeking re-election this fall, was one of four Democrats to oppose the measure.
The bill includes more money for border security, a guest worker program and a shot at citizenship for many of the estimated 11 million men and women illegally in the country.
It passed the Senate, 62-36, on the strength of a bipartisan coalition in which Democrats outnumbered Republicans. The GOP leadership was split; Majority Leader Bill Frist, of Tennessee, voted in favor but four others against. The opponents included Sen. Rick Santorum, in an exceedingly difficult re-election race in Pennsylvania, and Sen. Elizabeth Dole, of North Carolina, head of the party campaign committee.
Both felt it necessary to part company with a president who has become increasingly emphatic about the approach he wants from Congress.
"America can be a lawful society and a welcoming society at the same time," Bush said in an Oval Office speech nearly two weeks ago.
The president stressed his commitment to border enforcement. Then he called for a "rational middle ground" when it came to the illegal population. That approach, he said, "recognizes that there are differences between an illegal immigrant who crossed the border recently and someone who has worked here for many years, and has a home, a family, and an otherwise clean record."
The White House followed up by sending top political aide Karl Rove to meet with House Republicans twice in two weeks.
Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., who will lead House bargainers in any compromise talks with the Senate, said fellow Republicans had "jumped all over Rove. And they said the president is not where the American people are at."
That was mild coming from Sensenbrenner, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. "Regardless of what the president says, what he is proposing is amnesty," he said several days ago.
Eager to assist the president, the Republican National Committee on Friday circulated a memo by Matthew Dowd, a political strategist with close ties to Bush.
"The comprehensive approach that emphasizes both security and compassion is unifying, not polarizing. It is supported by Republicans, independents and Democrats," it said. "Furthermore, majorities of Hispanics back it."
Directly taking on Sensenbrenner and other GOP critics, Dowd said internal party polling shows voters "don't consider granting illegal status to those already here amnesty."
Sensenbrenner stressed his readiness to do his part to seek a compromise. So, too, did Sen. Arlen Specter, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. "Our leadership position as Republicans in on the line. I think that will weigh heavily" on the compromise effort, Specter, R-Pa., said shortly before the Senate approved its bill. Still, Dowd's assessment of the national mood may not mean much to individual House Republicans, particularly with Bush's poll ratings at an ebb.
Most House districts are noncompetitive, safely Republican or Democrat.
Five months before elections, Democrats are likely to be more interested in courting Hispanics than in helping Republicans out of a political jam.