McCain on Immigration: ‘Guarded Optimism’ About Winning a Bill

Photograph by Alexandre Meneghini/AP Photo

Republican Sen. John McCain from Arizona, center, gets ready for a press conference in Mexico City, in this Feb. 22, 2013 file photo.

Sen. John McCain, one of the architects of a bipartisan immigration bill that cleared the Senate, maintains “guarded optimism” that a bill acceptable to the Senate and President Barack Obama can make it through the House.

“I remain guardedly optimistic because the consequences of failure are so severe,” he said.

However, the Arizona Republican — like his Democratic colleague in the Senate’s so-called Gang of Eight, Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York — sees the road to success resting in the House’s ability to accept a bipartisan vote of passage for a final bill — breaking what’s known as a Hastert rule requiring a majority of the ruling Republican caucus for passage.

And while there is no hard deadline for winning an immigration bill, the longtime senator and presidential nominee of his party in 2008 looks to the looming 2014 midterm election-year as the effective point of no return.

“It’d be very tough going into 2014” to get a vote on immigration, McCain said today at a lunch sponsored by Bloomberg Government in Washington. “I think this fall is a very critical time.”

“There are a number of important players over in the House that would like to see legislation,” McCain said — pointing to Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte of Virginia and Budget Chairman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the party’s nominee for vice president last year. And he noted that House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio “has not closed out options.”

The key, he said, is getting a bill out of the House and into conference with the Senate. That would hand the House a decision over a conference report. The biggest obstacle is bridging their differences over the 11 million undocumented immigrants already in the U.S., with the Senate approving an eventual path to citizenship after 13 years. House leaders have spoken of limiting that to children of the undocumented brought to the U.S. illegally by their parents.

“Maybe if we got to conference, he wouldn’t enforce the Hastert rule,” McCain said of Boehner.

“If we could get some legislation passed through the House… a couple or three items passed through the House, and then get to conference and expand the scope of the conference into a comprehensive bill, then we would be at the last stop,” he said. “Does Speaker Boehner then insist on the Hastert rule or not. I don’t know. He’s got pressures within his own conference….”

Those pressures include Republicans concerned about facing party primary contests next year if they go too far on immigration.“I don’t know how much pressure can be brought to bear on many of these Republican members of Congress who are telling people, `Hey, I’m afraid of being primaried. I agree with you, but I’m afraid of being primaried.’ ”

Yet the political imperative for acting is just as strong, he suggested.

“Finally, I don’t know how you sustain an argument for doing nothing. I don’t know how you possibly sustain it, because then you are giving de facto amnesty. Because these  11 million people aren’t leaving, because they are free to stay in this country illegally… How you sustain an intellectual argument that we do nothing, I don’t understand.”

Acknowledging that he’s no expert of the House, where he briefly served before his first election to the Senate in 1986, McCain said, “I’ve talked to enough members of the House that these members would like to see a way through this. Then if there is a willingness to do that, then I maintain guarded optimism that we can.”

Pointing to a “diverse coalition” supporting immigration reform — ranging from evangelical Christians to the business community — McCain points to polls showing the public also supports a path to citizenship for the undocumented.

The Republican Party’s future also is at stake, said McCain, who lost that 2008 election to Obama. In reelection last year, the president’s share of the Hispanic vote increased to 71 percent.

“Many Republicans that I talk to privately over there know that we will never win a national election unless we get a larger proportion of the Hispanic vote than we did in the last two elections,” McCain said today. Passage of a bill won’t necessarily win votes, he said, but it will put his party “on a level playing field” to compete for that vote.

“August will be an important month,” he said, suggesting that this will be the time for that loose-knit coalition in support of a bill to get serious about communicating with House members,

“I’m not happy with the effort so far,” he said. “It’s a disparate group of different interests and they really haven’t gotten together to form a real campaign. It’s a campaign we’ve got to wage in the month of August.”

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