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Schneider: Could Bush 'triangulate' on immigration?

Story Highlights

• Bush differs with his own party on immigration reform
• Clinton had similar problem with his goal of welfare reform
• Clinton "triangulated" by reaching out to Republicans
• Could Bush do the same with Democrats on immigration?
By Bill Schneider
CNN Senior Political Analyst
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- What kind of challenge does immigration reform pose for President Bush? Everybody favors better border security. The issue is what to do about the millions of illegal immigrants already in the United States.

President Bush favors a path to citizenship. "People who meet a reasonable number of conditions and pay a penalty of time and money should be able to apply for citizenship," he said. (Watch President Bush on the need for immigration reform Video)

The Democrats running for president tend to agree with Bush. "Everybody who lives within those borders has a right to a life that is full of opportunity," Sen. Barack Obama said.

But Republican candidates are split down the middle. Mitt Romney, Rep. Duncan Hunter, Rep. Ron Paul, Jim Gilmore and Rep. Tom Tancredo all oppose a path to citizenship.

Tancredo is the most outspoken of the pack, as a blunt opponent of almost all types of immigration. "We're going to make them explain why amnesty is a good idea," Tancredo said.

The other Republican candidates, Rudy Giuliani, Sen. John McCain, Sen. Sam Brownback, Mike Huckabee and Tommy Thompson, all favor a path to citizenship for at least some illegal immigrants. "I know of no one who believes you can just round up 12 million people," Giuliani said.

The president's party is split. The opposition party, which tends to agree with the president on this issue, controls Congress. We've seen this situation before.

President Bill Clinton regarded welfare reform as a key part of his legacy. Clinton "triangulated" by reaching out to Republicans, who gained control of Congress in 1994. The result: When welfare reform came up for a vote in 1996, Democrats split down the middle. They voted 23 to 23 in the Senate and 98 to 98 in the House. But Republicans solidly supported Clinton on the issue.

Could Bush triangulate on immigration? "I guess he could be congratulated for that, for changing the Congress from Republican to Democrat, so he can get his immigration bill through," Tancredo said.

There's one big difference: In 1996, Clinton was on his way to re-election with a job approval rating of 58 percent. But what is Bush's latest job rating? Thirty-eight percent. It's hard to triangulate when you don't have much clout.

Bush may not want to triangulate. In 1996, Clinton co-opted the Republicans' position on welfare reform. But Bush is moving away from the Democratic position on immigration by endorsing more stringent requirements for citizenship. It's hard to see Democrats supporting Bush on this issue the way Republicans supported Clinton on welfare reform.


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President Bush calls for a comprehensive immigration reform package in a Monday speech in Yuma, Arizona.

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