A simple distinction explains why President Bush is unlikely to alter the outcome of the Senate debate on immigration reform, his visit to a Senate Republican luncheon this week notwithstanding.
Despite his relatively low presidential approval rating, Bush has plenty of power. There’s the veto and the executive order. He’s commander-in-chief and boss of American foreign policy. What he lacks is influence.
Presidential power — the veto in particular — allowed the president to ward off Democratic efforts to attach timetables for withdrawal of American troops to the Iraq funding bill last month. Democrats didn’t have the votes to override his veto of a bill with timetables.
But none of the constitutional powers of the presidency are useful to Bush in trying to sway Republican votes on immigration. Even the bully pulpit — speeches, press conferences, press availabilities — doesn’t help much in the seventh year in office of an unpopular president.
What Bush needs is the ability to persuade Republican senators to vote for immigration reform — in a word, influence. If his popularity were high at the moment, his influence would be considerable. Republican senators would have to pay serious attention to his advice. With his popularity low, they don’t.
The immigration bill has provoked an outburst of opposition felt on both sides of Capitol Hill. The offices of Republican senators, especially, have been flooded with phone calls and e-mails in opposition to the immigration bill.
The president heard from immigration reform supporters and critics alike at the luncheon. “It was a good give and take,” said Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell. “We didn’t
expect anybody to stand up and holler that they had an epiphany.” And nobody did.
A new idea for passing the bill was mentioned to the president by Sen. Johnny Isakson of Georgia. He said the public’s “confidence level” in Congress and the White House to secure the border is so low that it’s jeopardizing passage for the bill.