WASHINGTON — Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Chuck Schumer of New York discussed major immigration reforms Thursday with President Barack Obama at a White House meeting.
Graham, a Seneca Republican, waded back into a political minefield on a controversial issue that has prompted conservative activists across the nation to vilify him since he helped lead a failed Senate bid to overhaul the immigration system in 2007.
Obama has faced more recent criticism from Hispanic lawmakers and advocacy groups accusing him of failing to deliver on a 2008 campaign promise to help the 12 million undocumented workers in the United States.
Graham said after the White House session that he had warned Obama against bending Senate rules in order to pass health care legislation, saying that move would imperil the president's other legislative initiatives.
"I expressed in no uncertain terms my belief that immigration reform could come to a halt for the year if health care reconciliation goes forward," Graham said.
"For more than a year, health care has sucked most of the energy out of the room," he said. "Using reconciliation to push health care through will make it much harder for Congress to come together on a topic as important as immigration."
Reconciliation is the parliamentary term for moving budget-related legislation through the Senate with a simple majority vote instead of the normal 60 votes required to cut off debate and move to final passage.
Graham and Schumer said establishing a biometric Social Security card must be the centerpiece of a new immigration measure.
Graham sketched his priorities as "living up to our commitments to secure our nation's borders, pushing to move our nation toward a biometric Social Security card to ensure illegal workers cannot get jobs, creation of a temporary worker program and a rational plan to deal with the millions of illegal immigrants already in the United States."
Schumer, a Democrat, said the three men had "a very positive meeting" that aides said lasted 45 minutes.
"All of us agreed that passing comprehensive immigration reform this year is very important to the nation," Schumer said. "We presented the president with our agreed-upon framework, which is a product of our negotiations over the last year."
Aides said the two senators have been holding individual and small group meetings with other senators and advocacy groups for the last several months.
Graham and Schumer said they told Obama he must become more actively engaged in order for immigration reform to have any realistic chance of advancing in Congress.
Aides said the senators asked Obama specifically to lobby Republican senators, similar to his personal engagement before Senate votes last year on economic stimulus and health care measures.
Three Republican senators joined Democrats in February 2009 in passing the $787 billion stimulus bill. No Republicans voted for the $871 billion health insurance legislation when the Senate approved it in December.
President George W. Bush, Graham and Sen. John McCain of Arizona — all Republicans — joined the late Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts and other Democrats in pushing a major immigration measure in 2007.
Sen. Jim DeMint, a fellow South Carolina Republican, branded the bill "amnesty" and led opposition to it. The legislation died in the Senate in June 2007 after tying up the chamber for weeks.
Conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh lambasted the measure as "Grahamnesty," and local Republican groups in South Carolina censured Graham, but he was comfortably elected to a second Senate term in 2008.
McCain, the 2008 Republican presidential nominee, is facing a stiff GOP primary challenge this year from former Rep. J.D. Hayworth, now a conservative radio commentator.
McCain has shied away from re-engaging on the polarizing immigration issue that inflames conservatives.
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Thursday that it's up to Graham to find other Republican senators willing to support immigration reforms.
"I think Senator Graham is certainly pretty well positioned to take their temperature and see what it's going to take for them to make progress on this issue," Gibbs told reporters.
Graham told reporters Wednesday on Capitol Hill that he remains committed to overhauling immigration laws and regulations.
"I believe that comprehensive immigration reform is good for the country," he said.