McCain aims to revive immigration reform when he returns to Congress
Before leaving Washington for treatment for brain cancer, McCain, R-Ariz., said he broached the idea with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. The two collaborated on unsuccessful immigration legislation in 2013 as part of the bipartisan effort known as the “Gang of Eight.”
President Trump’s goal of building a U.S.-Mexico border wall might provide an opening for a bigger bargain on the issue, McCain said.
“Immigration reform is one of the issues I’d like to see resolved,” McCain told The Arizona Republic in a Thursday interview. “I’ve got to talk to him (Schumer) about when would be the best time. I think there are all kinds of deals to be made out there. I really do.”
Uphill battle under Trump administration
His goal remains a long shot in the Trump era, with Senate Majority Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., running the Senate and House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., leading the House of Representatives.
Even at times when the White House was friendly to the idea, success on the issue has proved elusive for McCain, who has worked on comprehensive immigration reform bills for more than 10 years. But while former presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama wanted immigration reform, Trump has appeared hostile to any approach that would balance border-security investments with a pathway for citizenship for immigrants without legal status who have settled in the United States.
McCain’s remarks came a day after Trump backed a Senate bill from Sens. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., and David Perdue, R-Ga., that proposes sharp cuts to legal immigration.
But the six-term McCain, who turns 81 on Aug. 29, also is in a more reflective place in his long Senate career as he faces a serious health challenge and undergoes chemotherapy for brain cancer.
“We’ll know in a few weeks,” McCain said of the cancer on Thursday in a meeting with Arizona Republic editors and reporters. “I hate the use the word ‘beat it,’ because it’s not a matter of beating. You either get cured or you don’t get cured.”
A plea for bipartisanship
The nation’s eyes were on McCain in the early hours of July 28when he gave a decisive thumb’s down to the Senate Republican “skinny repeal” health-care legislation, which had the effect of derailing the current GOP push to undo the Affordable Care Act, one of Obama’s signature accomplishments.
Earlier in the week, McCain — who returned to Washington after a surprise July 14 craniotomy to remove a blood clot that revealed the cancer — entranced his colleagues with a memorable July 25 floor speech in which he decried the Senate’s current state of partisan dysfunction and urged a return to bipartisan camaraderie and compromise.
McCain said he was “shocked” the rest of the Senate stuck around to hear him speak.
“I think they stayed to listen, not so much because of my vote, because of what I was trying to say,” McCain said. “They’re not happy with this polarization. They’re not happy with this not getting anything done. That’s not why they come to the Senate.”
More support for reform
In the meeting with the newspaper’s editorial board, McCain said Schumer is in agreement about the need to return to immigration reform.
“Basically it’s what we passed last time, brought up to date with the new challenges, like opioids,” McCain said. “It’s still there. We got 68 votes, I think, the last time. I don’t think that’s going to be any different next time.”
One longtime champion of comprehensive immigration reform applauded McCain’s return to the fray, despite the long odds.
“It’s difficult to imagine Trump signing a comprehensive immigration reform bill because he’s so focused on stoking his base,” said Frank Sharry, the executive director of the liberal-leaning national pro-reform organization America’s Voice.
“But you can see how more and more people are moving away from Trump as his poll ratings sink, as his lying becomes endemic, and his temperament is so obviously juvenile,” he said. “It’s conceivable that a group of bipartisan-minded Republicans in the Senate can make common cause with bipartisan-minded Democrats.”
McCain would be the natural leader of such a movement, Sharry said.
In 2013, McCain and Schumer led the bipartisan Gang of Eight, which also consisted of Republican Sens. Jeff Flake of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Marco Rubio of Florida, and Democratic Sens. Dick Durbin of Illinois, Michael Bennet of Colorado and Robert Menendez of New Jersey.
Their legislation aimed to balance border security with a pathway to citizenship and a modernized visa system.
In his new book, Conscience of a Conservative: A Rejection of Destructive Politics and a Return to Principle, Flake positively recounted his role in the immigration deliberations, which resulted in a bill that passed the Senate but went nowhere in the Republican-controlled House.
“The Gang of Eight — four Republicans, four Democrats — proved that the process as designed can actually work,” Flake wrote in the book.
For his part, McCain said he realizes it won’t be easy, and doesn’t know if he could ever persuade to Trump and McConnell to go along.
“I don’t know, but what I do know is that if we could pass it through the House and Senate the way we passed it through the Senate last time, it’s like this Russia (sanctions) bill, it doesn’t matter,” McCain said. “Do you think he signed it because he liked it?”
Concerns about border wall and merit-based immigration
In conversations with The Republic, McCain was skeptical that the Senate would support a wall as envisioned by Trump, or its price tag. He emphasized, as others have, that certain stretches of the border don’t need a wall because of natural barriers.
“I’m not against a border wall, OK, but go to China and you’ll see a border wall there,” McCain said. “We need technology, we need drones, we need surveillance capabilities and we need rapid-reaction capabilities. But to think that a wall is going to stop illegal immigration or drugs is crazy.”
McCain said he supports merit-based immigration but worries about how farm labor, such as the workers who pick lettuce in Yuma, and other low-skilled workers would fare under the Cotton-Perdue bill that Trump is backing.
“I think you have to consider that we do want high-tech people, but we also need low-skilled people who will do work that Americans won’t do,” McCain said. “I wouldn’t do it. Even in my misspent youth, I wouldn’t do it.”