By Dan Nowicki and Ronald J. Hansen
The Republic | azcentral.com
The eight senators who banded together to pursue bipartisan immigration reform span the political spectrum from conservative to liberal. Some are longtime lawmakers while others are rising stars who represent the future of their parties. But each brings talents to the table that reform advocates hope will culminate in an overhaul of immigration laws. The Republican side includes a former presidential nominee and a likely future White House contender. The Democratic side includes the chairman of the Senate’s immigration subcommittee and a top-ranking leader.
The heavyweight group includes both of Arizona’s senators, Republicans John McCain and Jeff Flake. The other members are Sens.
Charles Schumer, D-N.Y.; Marco Rubio, R-Fla.; Dick Durbin, D-Ill.; Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.; Robert Menendez, D-N.J.; and Michael Bennet, D-Colo.
“It’s quite a set,” said Mark Peterson, a political- science professor at UCLA. “It’s got John McCain back in the game. He’s back, and I think that’s an important signal.”
Rubio and Flake speak the language of the right, while Schumer, Durbin and Menendez anchor support from the left, Peterson said.
Where immigration reform is concerned, conservatives are the critical bloc because Democrats traditionally have backed reform efforts. For their part, President Barack Obama and his Democratic allies are eager to deliver on promises of reform. Proponents are hoping Republicans may be more supportive if only to help rehabilitate their party’s image with Latino voters, who overwhelmingly backed Obama in November.
Still, whether the powerful personalities can marshal legislation into results remains to be seen. Six years ago, a group that included the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and then-Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., as well as McCain, couldn’t get a bill out of the Senate.
Since then, the Republicans have lost two presidential elections, which could change the political dynamic. Days after Obama won more than 70 percent of the Latino vote in his re-election victory over GOP challenger Mitt Romney, prominent Republicans began talking about the need for reform.
So far, there’s no bill. The group of senators on Monday unveiled a framework of principles that will guide the drafting. And even if it passes the Democrat-controlled Senate, the legislation likely would face more resistance in the Republican-controlled House.
The outline proposes a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants already in the United States that would be contingent on a new commission’s declaration that the border is secure. The senators’ plan also would include a guest-worker program and workplaceverification requirements.
One Republican member of the group, Sen.
Mike Lee of Utah, parted company with his colleagues because of what he described as a disagreement over “a policy that will grant special benefits to illegal immigrants based on their unlawful presence in the country.”
Although McCain and Graham are veterans of past bipartisan efforts — two attempts failed in 2006 and 2007 — one expert cited Rubio as the most important GOP figure because of his status as a “tea party” conservative.
Even though McCain and Graham staked out a tougher position on border security in recent years, the duo may already have worn out their welcome with the party’s right wing, which traditionally has resisted proposals that it perceives as granting “amnesty” to undocumented immigrants, said John J. “Jack” Pitney Jr., a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in Southern California.
“If there is any chance for this measure to move, those chances depend on Rubio,” Pitney said. “He’s in a unique position on the one hand to appeal to Hispanics, but on the other hand he has appeal to party conservatives. If John McCain or Lindsey Graham say something, party conservatives just roll their eyes.”
While Rubio, a possible 2016 White House hopeful, this past week was selling the bipartisan ideas to conservative opinion-shapers such as Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, McCain has been talking on mainstream networks such as ABC, CNN and CBS.
Others say McCain and Graham bring a lot to the table, too.
“What if there was a rollout of principles that didn’t include McCain and Graham?” asked Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, a national organization that advocates for comprehensive immigration reform, and an expert on the politics of the issue. “People wouldn’t take it nearly as seriously, because they both have been so identified as leaders on this issue over the years and as champions who have stood up to those in their own party. They are incredibly persuasive with their colleagues.”
McCain said he was glad that Rubio, a latecomer, joined the bipartisan talks.
“I certainly think he is an important participant,” McCain told The Arizona Republic.