Bush Takes Uphill Battle to Capitol Hill

If President Bush hoped his visit today to Capitol Hill would revive the immigration reform bill that seems, as one Republican senator put it, "on life support," he got some bad news.

The cheerful if embattled president waved to cameras as he entered the weekly lunch for Republican senators. Bush did not emerge from the meeting as cheerfully as he'd entered.

"Some members in there are, believe, that we need to move a comprehensive bill, some don't," said a seemingly discouraged Bush. "I understand that. It's a highly emotional issue."

Republican senators told ABC News that they told Bush that their constituents do not believe the federal government when it promises this bill will crack down on border security and fix the problem of illegal immigration.

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said, "The public simply doesn't believe that Congress can be taken seriously when it comes to enforcing the law."

"It wasn't just the merits of the bill" that sank the bill, said Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, who as the president's senior senator presided over the meeting. "It was the feeling in the states that the government wasn't going to keep its promise" about border security.

"People back home don't trust the government to follow through ," said Sen. John Thune, R-S.D.

Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., agreed that the main question was "whether the executive branch will fulfill its commitments."

The president seemed to get that message.

"It's going to take a lot of hard work, a lot of effort. We've got to convince the American people that this bill is the best way to enforce our border," Bush said after the meeting.

The president tried to charm the crowd by telling Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., one of the bill's strongest opponents, that even though they disagree on the immigration matter, "there's no way anyone can keep me from coming down and raising money for you" at a Sessions re-election campaign fundraiser next week.

But passing this bill is going to take more than charm.

"I don't think the president and his top advisers understand the fundamental flaws in the bill. They just don't," Sessions told ABC News after today's meeting.

When asked if today's meeting wtih Republican senators changed any minds, Cornyn replied, "Nah, I don't think so."

"I can't say he changed my mind," said Thune.

"He didn't persuade me," said Sessions.

The president's appeal for the immigration reform effort was, by most accounts, from the heart.

"The president was very emotional in describing his feeling about the importance of doing this," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

But Republican opponents of the bill insist it is the substance of the bill -- not the president's feelings about it -- that are at issue and need to be addressed.

"This bill needs to be fixed. And he does not need to bring it up again until he's got a bill that will work," said Sessions.

The Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., today said he would not bring the bill back up unless the Republicans could deliver 25 votes in favor of it.

"We'll move on to immigration when they have their own act together. Fourteen percent of the Republicans supporting the president's bill won't do the trick," Reid said.

And it does not look like that will happen anytime soon. The president's approval rating with conservatives is at an all-time low. So there is only so much credibility he has with his own party.

One idea being floated by Republicans is to pass a spending bill to fund previous immigration enforcement measures to illustrate that this administration is sincere about border security and related issues

In many ways the president has inherited generations of grudges. ABC News asked Specter if the widespread skepticism of the bill was a reflection of the White House's credibility issues.

"Yeah," quipped Specter, "the Clinton White House, the Reagan White House and Bush I's White House."

Matthew Jaffe contributed to this report

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