Gloves Off on Immigration Bill as McCain, Schumer Go to the Mat

Bipartisan buddies John McCain and Chuck Schumer say their immigration bill—pathway to citizenship included—will pass, despite doubts after the Boston bombing. Eleanor Clift reports.

The two senior senators leading the effort for immigration reform, New York’s Chuck Schumer and Arizona’s John McCain, said Thursday that immigration questions raised in the aftermath of the Boston bombing will not deter their effort, and that they think they can get 70 votes in the Senate for a bill that includes a path to citizenship for 11 million people who are now in the country illegally.

Schumer did the math: He counts 50-plus Democrats plus six to eight Republicans who would get them to the 60-vote threshold to avoid a filibuster, but that’s not his goal.

“We’re looking not to get 60 votes–that’s the minimum,” Schumer, a Democrat, said as he raised the stakes, adding, “It would be wonderful if we could get a majority on both sides.”

McCain, a Republican, seated next to him at a breakfast sponsored by The Christian Science Monitor, didn’t miss a beat, chiming in, “I think it’s very doable.”

The reason for 70-plus goal is that it would force action in the House, where Republicans oppose any path to citizenship as amnesty; without a path – the Senate bill calls for a maximum wait time of 13 years years – the bill would be a non-starter for Democrats, and for McCain, too, who said legal status alone without citizenship “offends our fundamental system of fairness.”

The two senators are part of a bipartisan group of eight (four Democrats, four Republicans) forging ahead on a reform bill despite reservations in the aftermath of the Boston bombing. Schumer said the bill would strengthen the country’s defenses, adding that those urging them to hold off were never for the bill in the first place. “It’s an excuse,” he said. McCain said there would be plenty of time during what will likely be weeks of floor debate to offer amendments, and that if lessons learned from Boston can be applied in the amendment process, he was open to that.

“This is not the final product,” McCain said. But while he is open to changes, he is also wary of amendments that could kill the bill as happened in 2007, the last time the Senate came this close to passing immigration reform. “These are fragile compromises,” he said. The reason he’s optimistic is because his side now has a broader coalition of support from labor, business, evangelicals, and the Catholic Church, while advances in technology such as “evader radar” developed in Iraq can make border security more achievable.

But mostly it’s the politics driving the policy, and McCain is candid about the changed situation for Republicans. “Passing this bill would not give us a single vote, but it would put us on the playing field where we can compete,” he said, noting that in states like Arizona and Texas, it is a demographic certainty that in six or eight years Hispanics will be a majority, or near majority, and not acting on this issue would “condemn ourselves to 15 to 20 percent” of that vote.

Polls show that 70 percent of the American people favor immigration reform, and a poll released Thursday taken by Americans for Tax Reform found two-thirds of Republicans support the Senate bill as it’s been described.

Schumer said Republicans accuse him of pushing for reform just to add Democratic votes, and he responds that the first vote of any of these newly minted citizens would be in 13-and-a-half years “and if you can’t figure out your problem in 13-and-a-half years, you’re finished.” Asked about objections raised by various interest groups, McCain responded dismissively, “They’re unhappy, but they’ve signed up … that’s what compromise is about.” So far, nobody has abandoned the process, recognizing that the status quo is unacceptable.

President Obama’s name did not come up in the context of immigration reform until the very last question asking the senators to assess his role. “His role has been very appropriate … exactly appropriate,” McCain said, praising Obama for engaging the group of eight, expressing his public support for the bill, and at the same time “not trying to dictate terms of it.” Schumer said he had asked the president “to give our group space. I would describe his role as just about perfect.”

“I wouldn’t go that far,” McCain interjected in a jocular way. The two men have an easy camaraderie that is edgy and aggressive but good-natured, and that should stand them in good stead as they parry with each other and with lawmakers within their parties in the weeks and months ahead. They have come together not only on immigration reform, but on gun background checks, where McCain was one of a handful of Republicans who voted for the bill.

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McCain echoed Schumer’s prediction that the gun bill would be brought back in the Senate before the end of the year, and with a few tweaks, perhaps on how gun sales are treated over the Internet, the bill had a chance. McCain said this was the first time in a long time he felt optimistic about a bipartisan approach to problems, including a possible Grand Bargain on the budget and taxes. “We all seek approval, which is why we do the things we do,” he said, and with Congress’ approval rating just below the approval rating of a colonoscopy, McCain said his aim is to at least get above that.