WASHINGTON – President Bush, short on political capital and time, is devoting much of what's left of his term in office to getting an immigration deal.
Starting with an April 9 speech in Arizona, in which he talked tough about border security and prodded Congress to get moving, Bush has staged a dozen immigration events. That's not counting his four radio addresses on the topic in that time, or his phone calls to lawmakers, or his bold prediction that he'd see reporters at the bill-signing for a bill that seemed dead.
His agenda reflects that immigration is a White House priority for multiple reasons.
It is deeply important to the president, a former Texas governor who sees the status quo on immigration as a failure for the nation and a looming disaster for his party. It is seen as a major legislative victory within reach. And it is seen as urgent — now or never for him, most likely.
So each day, a White House strategy team weighs how to maintain momentum on a bill offering legal status to millions of unlawful immigrants.
A small, core group of officials — representing policy, communications, strategy and legislative offices — organizes the approach.
There is no war room, per se, but rather meetings held in locations at the White House and on Capitol Hill. The participants vary and overlap. The president gets involved when his participation is deemed to have the most impact. His voice is the loudest, but not one to be overused, the strategy goes.
The signals often come from Candida Wolff, Bush's legislative affairs chief.
"She hollers when she wants the president's assistance in speaking to a particular member of Congress," said Joel Kaplan, the deputy chief of staff for policy. "And I expect that she'll holler a few more times before all is said and done."
Meanwhile, two of Bush's Cabinet members have made almost a full-time job of lobbying for the bill. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez may as well be considered tenants on Capitol Hill, Kaplan quipped.
When the immigration bill stalled in the Senate, Bush got personally involved in resurrecting it.
He called Republican Sens. Jon Kyl of Arizona, Trent Lott of Mississippi and Mitch McConnell of Kentucky while in Europe. On his flight back to the U.S., he called Kyl and Democratic Sens. Ken Salazar of Colorado and Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts.
Then, the next day, he made a rare visit to Capitol Hill to lobby Republican senators at a closed-door meeting.
The rescue effort had at least some effect; later that week, Senate leaders reached a deal to get the bill back up for debate.
"Even a weakened president is a potential political force," said Republican strategist Rich Galen. "He may well get something out of this. I was with everyone else when the thing got pulled from the (Senate) floor, saying, 'Well, that's that.' But here it is again."
The Senate voted Tuesday to revive the bill. It must still overcome another make-or-break vote as early as Thursday that will also require the backing of 60 senators. And there is no guarantee that it will ultimately attract even the simple majority it needs to pass.
Bush is still making calls to senators, although the White House picks and chooses when it will disclose details.
"He's been on the phone," spokesman Tony Snow said Tuesday. "I'm not going to tell you how many or who he has talked to."
The president, not surprisingly, projects confidence. He talks of when, not if, the Senate will pass a bill to his liking in the coming days.
"When successful in the Senate, we'll be reconvening to figure out how to get the bill out of the House," he told advocates of his plan.
In his visit to the Capitol, Bush was gracious and grateful to fellow Republicans. At other times, his strategy has been more blunt.
Along the way, Bush has accused critics of the legislation of not reading the details of the bill; of potentially lacking courage; of engaging in scare tactics; of searching for a reason to oppose it; and of not doing what's right for America.
With all this, Bush's aides scoff at criticism that Bush should be more personally engaged in lobbying for the bill. So does he.
"My administration is deeply involved in the issue," Bush said. "I feel passionate about the issue."