In every emphatic way, President Bush has declared repeatedly that his immigration bill does not offer amnesty.

And then, on Tuesday, he said it did.

"You know, I've heard all the rhetoric — you've heard it, too — about how this is amnesty," Bush told advocates of his immigration overhaul. "Amnesty means that you've got to pay a price for having been here illegally, and this bill does that."

That's not what Bush meant. Saying that his bill included amnesty was the last thing he meant.

When word started to get out about the gaffe in media reports, the White House scrambled to fix it.

White House press secretary Tony Snow issued an unusual statement to, in essence, correct his boss.

"Earlier today, in speaking about comprehensive immigration reform, President Bush misspoke," Snow said.

"This has been construed as an assertion that the comprehensive immigration reform legislation before the Senate offers amnesty to immigrants who came here illegally," he said. "That is the exact opposite of the president's long-held and often-stated position."

The timing, unfortunately for Bush, came just hours before a critical test vote for immigration bill in the Senate. The fast bit of damage control underscored how tenuous the bill's fate is, and how important it is for Bush as a domestic priority.

Conservative opponents of the bill have been depicting it as amnesty — essentially, a free pass for breaking the law — for millions of illegal immigrants. The White House says that argument is a distortion of the bill, and a scare tactic designed to scuttle it.

The bill would give temporary legal status to millions of unlawful immigrants, provided they come forward, paid fines and fees and underwent criminal background checks. To apply for a green card, they would have to go through a series of other steps, including returning to their home country and waiting in line.

"Amnesty means forgiving wrongdoing without imposing punishment," Snow said. "The immigration reforms passed in 1986 granted amnesty. The legislation under consideration this year does not."