By JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVIS
Associated Press Writer
WASHINGTON (AP) - President Bush, wading deeper into an issue that bitterly divides his party, hopes a personal appeal to fellow Republicans at lunch Tuesday can save his immigration bill.
Bush scheduled a rare visit to the Capitol, seeking to change enough minds among GOP senators to salvage a top domestic priority.
The measure, which legalizes up to 12 million unlawful immigrants and tightens border security, stalled last week in the face of broad Republican opposition.
"I think one of the things that we have to do is answer the skeptics, answer the doubters," White House press secretary Tony Snow said Tuesday.
"We not only have a good sound bill, but it's also one that a lot of conservatives, when they get a chance to look at it, will say OK," he said on NBC's "Today" show.
Scott Stanzel, another White House spokesman, said Bush "will talk about the fact that immigration reform is too important to let this opportunity pass, and this is the best opportunity that we have had in decades to reform the broken immigration system."
Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., told CNN Tuesday that Bush "needs to help us write a better bill and not push a bill that so many of us cannot support."
It's the president's latest and most overt attempt to sell Congress on the immigration overhaul, which was shaped by his views and drafted by an unlikely liberal-to-conservative coalition in close consultation with two Cabinet secretaries.
"I'll see you at the bill signing," Bush predicted Monday.
The measure exposes deep divisions among both parties, but it was Republicans who stood in its way last week when all but seven of them blocked a Democratic effort to put it on a fast track to passage.
Senate Democratic leaders have written Bush saying it is up to him to lean on Republicans to back the measure.
"It will take stronger leadership by you to ensure the opponents of the bill do not block its path forward," the letter said. "Simply put, we need many more than seven Republicans" to support the bill.
Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said he will bring up the measure again if Democrats can be assured of more Republican backing.
It's unclear, though, how much influence Bush has among Republicans on immigration, given that it has sparked a backlash among some of the party's core supporters, who see it as amnesty for people who sneaked into the country.
Appearing Tuesday on CBS's "The Early Show," Snow said, "I think what you're going to find is that Senate Republicans are going to put together a package of amendments and present them to Democrats and say, 'This what we want to debate.' "
"We seem to be getting some signals out of the majority leader that he'll go ahead and make that debate possible, and therefore we feel pretty confident we're going to get passage," Snow said.
Said Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., a key sponsor of the bill: "I think the president understands that really is our last best hope. We have a system that cannot identify whether they (immigrants) are legally employed or not."
"Unfortunately, neither the previous administraton nor this administration nor the Congress has done a good job of enforcing the border," Kyl told CNN Tuesday. "The key is employee verification ... and the system today we have is broken. It's a joke. It cannot be enforced."
Proponents of the bill gathered Monday evening to plot strategy for bringing it back. They were working to agree on a limited list of Republican-sought changes that could be considered before a final vote on the measure.
Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the minority leader, has said such a deal could allow the bill to go forward.
"There are a substantial number of Republican senators who believe that this bill would be an improvement over the current situation, over the status quo," McConnell said.
(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)