US Republican Senator from Arizona John McCain and Demoratic Senator from New York Chuck Schumer speak during a press conference on an agreement for principles on comprehensive immigration reform framework at the US Capitol in Washington on January 28, 2013. AFP PHOTO / Saul LOEBSAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
Updated: March 2, 2013 6:28AM
WASHINGTON — Sen. John McCain is back on board when it comes to comprehensive immigration reform, though he may argue he never really strayed. That’s what I was thinking as I watched Monday what has become the rarest of events on Capitol Hill: a bipartisan group of senators actually agreeing to something major.
“We’ve been down this road before, but I feel very good about our chances this time,” Sen. Dick Durbin said at a press conference called to highlight the bipartisan “framework” of an immigration deal reached between eight senators — four Democrats and four Republicans, including Durbin and McCain.
After years of false starts, the 2012 election results — where Hispanics overwhelming voted for President Barack Obama — are bringing Republicans to the bargaining table. Obama delivers a speech Tuesday in Las Vegas outlining his comprehensive immigration plans, expected to be close to what the senators are proposing.
There is a deep sense of urgency fueling the push for Congress to pass immigration reform, with Obama and backers wanting to move fast, before Republicans forget that key lesson of the 2012 presidential election.
“We still have a long way to go, but this bipartisan blueprint is a major breakthrough,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.). Schumer said it would take into March to draft legislation based on the broad outline released on Monday.
McCain in 2006 teamed up with the late Sen. Ted Kennedy to champion a bipartisan immigration plan — which went nowhere even with the support of then President George W. Bush in a Congress where both chambers were controlled by Republicans. Running for president in 2008, McCain’s GOP primary rivals beat him up over immigration, especially his alliance with the liberal Kennedy. Up for re-election in Arizona in 2010, McCain became an immigration hard liner.
He even walked away from the DREAM Act, Durbin’s quest of more than a dozen years, to allow youths in the U.S. illegally through no fault of their own to stay.
But that’s old news. On Monday, McCain was back on the ground floor, invested in pushing a plan that included a path to citizenship for the 11.5 million people living in the U.S. illegally.
McCain called the legislative framework “a first step in what will continue to be difficult but achievable. And I don’t think I have to remind anyone the last major attempt was over six years ago. Now we will again attempt to commit the remaining resources needed to secure the border, modernize and streamline our current immigration system and create a tough but fair path to citizenship for those here illegally.”
A key element of the bipartisan pact — and what may end up being very contentious — is making the “tough but fair” path to citizenship contingent on securing the borders. Who would decide when this mission is complete? A commission of Southwest border state governors, attorney generals and civic leaders.
Durbin and Schumer briefed Obama on the Senate plan on Sunday. I asked Durbin if Obama will have some differences with the bipartisan blueprint and he told me that Obama “believes that we have invested dramatically in border security and that I think he is skeptical there is much return on additional investment.”
Missing from the bipartisan framework are provisions for uniting gay partners and families. Durbin told me that was a “a tactical decision.” All the Democrats support the concept and if it is not part of the base bill, an amendment may be offered later on.
FOOTNOTE: The immigration gang of eight also includes GOP Sens. Lindsey Graham (S.C.), Marco Rubio (Fla.) and Jeff Flake (Ariz.) and Democratic Sens. Bob Menendez (N.J.) and Michael Bennet (Colo.).