Two authors of the Senate bipartisan agreement on immigration from both parties see their work as a hopeful sign of a new wave of bipartisanship in Congress.
Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona and Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer of New York are cautiously optimistic that immigration legislation can be passed. McCain warns that a failure might lead to his party losing Republican-friendly states such as Arizona to Democrats.
In last year’s presidential election, Latinos voted for President Barack Obama over Republican Mitt Romney by 71 percent to 27 percent. Latinos made up 10 percent of the electorate.
The shifting electorate has forced the two parties back to the negotiating table on immigration.
“I think the partisanship has reached its peak,” Schumer said.
A day after President Barack Obama unveiled his own immigration proposals, the two veteran lawmakers sat down with reporters Wednesday at a hotel near the White House for a breakfast meeting hosted by Politico magazine.
They’re among a group of eight senators from each party who’ve outlined a plan that includes a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the U.S., but not until after the borders are secure. Other members include Republican Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Jeff Flake of Arizona, and Democratic Sens. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, Richard Durbin of Illinois and Michael Bennet of Colorado.
The breakfast session was a chance for two of the group’s members to repeat the theme of bipartisanship touted at Monday’s news conference in the plan’s unveiling and echoed in the message that Obama offered Tuesday when speaking in Las Vegas about his own immigration proposal.
Significant obstacles to the senators’ plan remain, and McCain acknowledged that many in his party are still split on the issue. It’s up to the group’s leaders to sell their plan to the Republican base, he said. He complimented Rubio, who’s considered a potential 2016 presidential candidate, for broaching the issue with hard-liners, such as conservative talk-show host Rush Limbaugh.
McCain said the fall election highlighted how Republicans had failed to understand the importance of immigration to Hispanic citizens.
“If you have a large bloc of Americans who believe you’re trying to keep their fellow Hispanics down and deprive them of an opportunity, obviously that’s going to have an effect on the voter,” he said.
Schumer noted there are also consequences for his party. Some Democrats secretly don’t want this resolve the issue and would rather use it for leverage, he said.
"I’ve heard the argument, ’Let’s keep it out there as an issue. Let’s leave it as a wedge issue, because it will ensure the dominance of the Democratic Party for a long time,’ ” Schumer said. "That’s wrong."
The Senate will hold its first hearing Feb. 13. Legislation might be introduced by March.
A tougher battle is expected in the House of Representatives. Several House leaders already have come out in opposition of the president’s and senators’ plans.
Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, the former chair of the House Judiciary Committee, said the Senate plan would cost taxpayers millions of dollars, would amount to what he called “amnesty” and would encourage more illegal immigration.
But there is some momentum on the House side. Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has said it’s time to address immigration. And a similar bipartisan group in the House is working out legislative ideas. Members include Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart of Florida and Democratic Reps. Zoe Lofgren and Rep. Xavier Becerra of California.
Other lawmakers, such as Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, and Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., have said they’ve talked with members from across the aisle.