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Bush takes aim at GOP critics of immigration deal

Says conservatives use scare tactics, 'haven't read bill'

President Bush's trip to Georgia opened a campaign intended to undercut the criticism that has consumed conservative talk shows and Internet sites, and educate the public. (Oscar Sosa/Bloomberg News)

GLYNCO, Ga. -- President Bush lashed out at critics within his own party yesterday, accusing Republican opponents of distorting the immigration deal he negotiated with leading congressional Democrats and playing on the politics of fear to undermine public support.

In harsh tones normally reserved for the liberal opposition, Bush said conservatives fighting the immigration proposal "haven't read the bill" and oppose it in some cases because "it might make somebody else look good." Their "empty political rhetoric," he said, threatens to thwart what he called the last, best chance to fix an immigration system that all sides agree is broken.

"If you want to kill the bill, if you don't want to do what's right for America, you can pick out one little aspect out of it," he told thousands of trainees at a federal center here that prepares Border Patrol officers. "You can use it to frighten people. Or you can show leadership and solve this problem once and for all, so the people who wear the uniform in this crowd can do the job we expect them to do."

The president's rhetoric underscored the bitter crossfire among Republicans over immigration and the enormous challenge Bush faces in trying to rally his party behind what may be the most significant domestic initiative left in his presidency. The White House has been pressing conservatives to fall in line, sending emissaries to meet with lawmakers and activists, but many on Capitol Hill and on the presidential campaign trail have ignored the administration's pleadings and rushed to denounce the deal.

Although the proposal has the support of key Democrats, most notably Senator Edward Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat, the White House recognizes that its chances of pushing it through depend on winning enough Republican support. Bush's trip to Georgia opened a campaign intended to undercut the criticism that has consumed conservative talk shows and Internet sites, and educate the public about a complicated bill.

But conservatives bristled at his remarks. "I don't think name-calling does any good at this point," said David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union. "What they've done from the very beginning is say, `This is the way we want it done and anyone who disagrees with us is outside the mainstream.' . . . It's been badly handled. They'll be lucky, given the attitudes in the country, to come up with anything."

Brian Darling, an analyst at the Heritage Foundation, said he and his colleagues not only have read the bill but posted it on the think tank's website . "Most conservatives have very strong feelings that this bill contains amnesty . . . and no yelling and screaming by the administration is going to change our minds," he said.

As for the charge of scare tactics, Darling said: "Honestly, I really think people should be frightened. This bill would be the most dramatic change to immigration law in 40 years and no one seems to understand what's in the bill. . . . The American people should be frightened by the closed-door process that was used and by the ramifications."

The proposal would beef up enforcement with thousands more Border Patrol agents and hundreds of miles of more fencing along the line with Mexico. After that has been accomplished, in an estimated 18 months, the legislation would introduce a guest-worker program, allowing some immigrants into the country temporarily, and create a process providing many of the 12 million illegal immigrants already here a chance to earn legal residency if they pay back taxes and penalties, pass criminal background checks, and return first to their country of origin.