The San Diego Union-Tribune

September 5, 2001

Bush says stalled agenda on Mexico is fault of Congress


WASHINGTON -- President Bush tried hard yesterday to lower
expectations for his meetings this week with Mexican President Vicente Fox, repeatedly blaming Congress for stalling his plans to improve U.S.-Mexican relations in areas of migration, drugs, trucking and trade.

In an interview with reporters from Mexico and U.S. border states, the president lavished praise on Fox, almost gushing about his personal manner and saying that his historic election last year gave him "higher moral authority to be able to stand up and say, 'I represent the people in a fair election.' "

Speaking only a few hours before Fox arrived in Washington, Bush said, "I'm really looking forward to tomorrow. . . . This will be a meeting of people that are comfortable with each other. I guess that's the best way to describe the relationship -- I understand him."

Bush endorsed Fox's statement Monday that it may take four to six years before sweeping immigration reforms can be adopted, though that was a major disappointment to those who thought the leaders had put the issue on a fast track.

"I think he's very realistic about how the United States operates," Bush said, adding, "I hope we can do it faster, and I think he would like to do it faster, too."

Bush said he and Fox "both realized the expectations were getting a little high and that there is a lot of work to be done."

The president even defended Fox against his Mexican critics, saying they should understand that the U.S. Congress -- not Fox -- is to blame for the slow pace of the reform agenda the two leaders adopted when they met at Fox's ranch in San Cristobal, in the state of Guanajuato, in February.

"President Fox doesn't have any control over the United States Congress. It's not his Congress," Bush said, contending that the "people in Mexico ought to be thrilled by the fact that our relationship is unique, different, and that we've had incredible cooperation."

Repeatedly, Bush blamed Congress, citing the role of the legislative branch 17 times in the 47-minute session conducted in the Roosevelt Room.

Pressed on the timetable for achieving immigration reform, the president admitted, "It's hard for me to tell." He quickly added, "You know, I'm beginning to learn about the ways of the Congress, about how the agendas get clogged up."

The president was relaxed throughout the session, sipping a cola and crunching ice. He grew fiery only when discussing congressional efforts to block Mexican trucks from U.S. highways when the North American Free Trade Agreement calls for free access.

"It's a fairness issue," he said. "Why are we going to discriminate against Mexican truckers all of a sudden in the United States?" He restated his intent to veto any appropriations bill containing the ban.

The president also targeted Congress on drugs, strongly objecting to the annual requirement that he "certify" that Mexico is making a good-faith effort to interdict drug shipments. Failure to certify would cut off U.S. aid.

"Mexico has a unique relationship. And it is unique. And they should be viewed as so. And yet our laws don't view it that way yet," Bush said.

He said perhaps the greatest value of the next few days, beyond the hands-across-the-border symbolism of the visit itself, could be the chance for Fox to personally press his case on Capitol Hill.

"I think President Fox, his presence here, his record and his statements, will help Congress understand that we need to change the decertification process," Bush said.

"We shouldn't necessarily be pointing fingers in our country, and . . . giving lectures on drugs. After all, we've got too many of our citizens using them," he said.

On making changes in U.S. immigration law, the president acknowledged the need to go slowly, repeatedly citing the complexity of the matter and the need to balance his desire for "normalization" of the millions of Mexicans illegally in the United States with basic fairness for those who have patiently waited to
enter the country legally.

Bush repeated that Fox's interaction with Congress will be critical.

"This visit's not only important obviously to send a signal about the relations. But it also is important for President Fox to come and speak to Congress and to make the case," Bush said. "We've got some selling to do in the United States Congress about the process of what he calls normalization."

He said he wants a plan "that at least gets Congress thinking aggressively about how to understand that the Mexican worker has had a positive impact on the U.S. economy and that there ought to be some normalization process, short of blanket amnesty."

Bush bristled at the suggestion that his meeting with Fox will be nothing more than a showy but disappointing photo opportunity. Instead, he tried to highlight the important consultations that led to such things as the planned joint meeting of the two Cabinets.

"This is not a relationship, you know, where all of a sudden we show up and write a paper. . . . This is an evolutionary process" that started long before the leaders toast each other at a state dinner.

The president said he and Fox "always" have energy on their agenda. But he promised no breakthrough toward funneling some Mexican electricity to hard-put California.

"It's a choice for Mexico to make," he said, noting that Fox is dealing with his own congress on the matter. But he again expressed hope that the United States, Canada and Mexico can increase energy cooperation.

On another matter, Bush praised Fox's efforts to raise Mexico's profile in foreign policy, calling him "a stabilizing influence in the hemisphere."

Bush made no effort to hide his fondness for his counterpart:

"I've come to know him and respect him a lot as a genuine man --
straightforward -- who doesn't play games. He's just a very easy-to-visit man," Bush said. "And he tells you exactly what's on his mind, and I like that kind of approach. You don't have to guess what he believes. And he listens."