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Anger over immigration plan surprises GOP senators

Story Highlights

• Constituents expressing intense anger over immigration bill at GOP senators
• Nearly half of voters who oppose immigration plan view it as extremely important
• Those who support immigration reform not demanding that Congress act
By Bill Schneider
CNN Senior Political Analyst
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- In his speech Tuesday on immigration reform, President Bush was trying to provide political cover for members of Congress to support the legislation. That could be tough.

Republicans are getting an earful on immigration. "I have learned some new words from some of my constituents," Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Arizona, said.

The angry response comes as a shock. "The level of intensity and volume is, I think, surprising,'' CNN contributor and radio talk show host Bill Bennett said. "We've talked to a number of Republican senators, and they confessed to being surprised by the reaction."

There's a big difference in intensity. Among those who favor a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, 28 percent say the issue is extremely important to them, according to a CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll. Those who oppose a path to citizenship feel much more strongly about the issue. Forty-seven percent say it's extremely important.

The poll, conducted May 4-6, had a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

President Bush said the legislation puts enforcement first. "If you're serious about securing our borders, it makes sense to support legislation that makes enforcement our highest priority," Bush said Tuesday.

Conservative critics responded with a scathing indictment. Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee said, "The folks out there in America who, when they see Washington saying we have this wonderful plan, they say 'Yeah right. We saw what you did with Katrina, we saw what you did with corruption, we saw what you have done in terms of managing the war. So when you tell us you fixed immigration, we are not buying.' "

President Bush used equally harsh language to assail his critics. "If you want to kill the bill, if you don't want to do what's right for America, you can pick one little aspect out of it. You can use it to frighten people,'' Bush said.

But critics of the legislation are not frightened. They're angry.

You don't see as much intensity among supporters of the legislation. "People have begun to realize that the bill is not quite as bad as those who said it was before they had read it," Kyl observed.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, put it this way: "Our product is better than those who want to do nothing.''

Those who favor the legislation are not demanding that Congress act, or else. Those who oppose it are threatening retaliation.

Which is why President Bush felt he had to say: "It takes a lot of courage in the face of some of the criticism in the political world to do what's right, not what's comfortable."

President Bush may not be in a position to offer much by way of political cover. When he spoke at the event in Georgia, only one Georgia lawmaker -- Sen. Saxby Chambliss -- appeared on the platform with him.


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