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Bush Joins War of Words Over Immigration

President Bush accused Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid on Thursday of "single-handedly thwarting" action on immigration legislation, and got a brisk retort in return.

"President Bush has as much credibility on immigration as he does on Iraq and national security," shot back the Nevada Democrat.

The exchange was the latest in a series of maneuvers among party leaders trying to assign blame for Senate gridlock over comprehensive immigration legislation. A pending measure would strengthen border security, create a guest worker program and offer eventual citizenship to many of the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the country.

Supporters claim the bill has more than enough votes to pass. It was sidetracked last week when Reid insisted on a procedure for voting on politically charged amendments that Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., rejected.

Bush and Reid swapped charges as Republicans disclosed a Spanish-language radio advertising campaign designed to shoulder Democrats with the responsibility for legislation passed by the GOP-controlled House that would make illegal immigrants subject to felony charges.

The ads are scheduled to air in New Mexico, Arizona and Nevada — states with large Hispanic populations.

The Senate has not voted on the issue of penalties. In the House, Republicans drafted legislation to make illegal immigrants subject to felony charges. Democrats say they were denied a chance to eliminate criminal penalties from the bill.

At another point, Republicans tried to substitute misdemeanor charges for felonies in the bill. Democrats opposed that effort, with at least some of them saying they wanted no criminal penalties at all. Republicans then passed the overall bill — including felony charges — on a largely party-line vote.

With public polling showing overwhelming opposition to the felony provision, GOP leaders said this week they would make sure any bill that clears Congress is shorn of the provision.

But prospects for passage are uncertain.

Bush described the Senate bill as a "promising bipartisan compromise on comprehensive immigration reform," and said Reid "refused to allow senators to move forward and vote for amendments. ... It was a procedural gimmick that meant he was single-handedly thwarting the will of the American people and impeding bipartisan efforts to secure this border and make this immigration system of ours more humane and rational."

Reid responded within minutes.

"If the president is serious about moving forward, then he should join me in calling on Senator Frist to bring immigration reform back to the Senate floor when we return" from a two-week recess, Reid said.

"Hopefully, by then, President Bush and his majority leader will have found the backbone to stop the extreme elements of the Republican Party from blocking improvements to America's security," Reid said.

Frist has said he intends to bring the issue back to the floor this year, but has stopped short of a firm commitment.

Attempts to pass the measure broke down last week when Reid demanded that Frist limit the number of amendments to be voted on and that the Republican leader agree to name supporters of the measure to negotiate any final compromise with the House. Democratic aides said the objective was to protect members of the rank and file from having to cast politically difficult votes in the run-up to the fall election, only to have the final bill turn out to be unsupportable.

Republicans counter that Reid was trying to usurp the prerogatives of individual critics of the legislation and of Frist, as well. They also say the Nevada senator had been assured that supporters of the bill had enough votes to defeat any of the amendments Democrats opposed.