WASHINGTON - Derailment of President Bush's immigration overhaul plan could be the death knell for his second-term domestic legacy.
With his bids to revamp Social Security, rewrite the tax code and extend expiring tax cuts apparently doomed, the White House sees the immigration bill as the last, best hope for a major domestic victory.
Bush will try to get the measure back on track when he meets with Republican senators next week after returning from Europe. Many in his own party say the odds against him are daunting.
The president's influence is diminished by his low approval ratings and the shadow cast by the war in Iraq. Though neither Bush nor Vice President Dick Cheney is on the ballot in November 2008, most members of Congress are.
"People have strong feelings on this issue. I believe we can express our feelings, disagree on certain elements and still come together on a solution," Bush said Friday. "In the heat of the debate, critics and supporters can sometimes talk past each other. So I want to speak to members about some of the concerns I heard."
Bush's comments were in his weekly radio address, which he taped Friday for broadcast Saturday. The White House put the text out early, underscoring the high-stakes nature of the issue for the president.
Even if Bush and his congressional allies manage to salvage the legislation in the Senate, prospects remain bleak in the House, where opposition is strong among core Republican members.
"You would have to guess, as of today, it's more likely not to happen than to happen," said veteran Republican consultant Charles Black, who is close to the White House. Black said Bush's efforts were complicated by the divisiveness of the immigration issue and the reluctance of Democrats who now run Congress to hand him a victory - even on an issue on which they agree.
"I also think that Iraq used up so much of his political capital that it made it difficult to get things done on the Hill," said Black, now an adviser to Republican presidential hopeful Sen. John McCain, who backs the bill.
The measure has stirred deep passions on both sides. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., put the bill - which he supports - aside Thursday after the Senate twice refused Democratic efforts to cut off debate. However, Reid and other supporters said they hoped to get back to it this year.
The package promises a path of legalization for millions of undocumented workers in the United States while tightening borders and offering employers more temporary workers.
James Thurber, director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University, said that the immigration bill "split both parties down the middle" and that its collapse shows "there is no central core of authority in Washington right now. It's not with the president. It's not with [House Speaker Nancy] Pelosi, it's not with Reid."
All presidents lose influence as they near the end of their terms. "He's been a lame duck for some time now, as evidenced by the Republican opposition to this bill," said Stephen Wayne, a government professor at Georgetown University.
At the same time, Wayne said, "I really wonder about the Senate leadership. If you need the president to muscle Republicans, why do you hold the vote when the president is out of the country?"
Reid had the Senate bill on the floor for two weeks before putting it aside Thursday. Bush was in Germany for a meeting of eight major industrial powers and planned to visit the Czech Republic, Poland, Italy, Albania and Bulgaria. He'll meet with Senate Republicans on Tuesday.
Bush saw more success in his first term, pushing through the Republican Congress a series of tax cuts, the partisan No Child Left Behind federal education law and a new prescription drug program for Medicare recipients.
But since his re-election, his major initiatives have come to naught.
That's why the White House has put so much importance on the immigration overhaul bill, which Bush has been pressing since his 2000 campaign.
"From his point of view, immigration is absolutely critical," said Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution. "To lose this is to lose any chance of a real domestic accomplishment in his second term. This is the big enchilada."