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McCain: White House Win 'Extremely Difficult' Without Immigration Action

Both of Arizona's Republican senators support an immigration overhaul. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

With Speaker Paul D. Ryan's comments about immigration Sunday, the top two Republicans in Congress have now declared dead the prospects of an overhaul before the 2016 elections.  

In the aftermath of 2012, when Latinos made up 10 percent of the electorate and President Barack Obama was re-elected resoundingly, Republican lawmakers and strategists predicted the GOP's White House ambitions were directly tied to the passage of comprehensive immigration legislation. Many of those voices haven't changed their tune. White House ‘Disappointed’ by Court’s Immigration Decision 

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., one of the four "gang of eight" Republicans who successfully navigated an immigration overhaul through the Senate in 2013, told CQ Roll Call it will be "extremely difficult" for a Republican to win the White House without action on immigration.  

"I wouldn’t predict, but I think that when you have a majority of a Hispanic population right now identifying themselves as in favor of some kind of path to citizenship and it’s important to them, I think it makes it more difficult,” McCain said Tuesday.  

That's a softened take from June 2014, when he said it wouldn't matter whom the party nominated for president if the GOP blocked immigration legislation. That came just a month after Chamber of Commerce President Thomas Donohue suggested Republicans shouldn't even put up a candidate if they failed to pass an overhaul.  

Two other Republicans from the gang of eight, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Marco Rubio of Florida, have discussed immigration policy on the presidential campaign trail. But Rubio backed off his advocacy for the 2013 bill after conservatives tagged a provision on granting a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants as "amnesty."  

The presidential race isn't the only one where this issue could play a significant role. Republicans, who have a vulnerable majority going into next year, are defending Rubio's open seat in Florida and their top two pick-up opportunities are in Nevada and Colorado — all states with sizable Hispanic populations.  

Ryan's immigration comments Sunday mirrored what Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said right before the August recess — both pinned their decision not to pursue comprehensive legislation on Obama's executive actions, some of which are being challenged in court.  

Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., the fourth Republican in the Senate gang of eight, agreed that the prospects of a wide-ranging bill are dead for now, though he noted "something on the margins" is possible. While Flake believes an immigration overhaul isn't a prerequisite to getting a Republican in the White House, he said a successful GOP candidate will need a plan.  

“I think that any Republican running for president has to have a realistic approach," Flake told CQ Roll Call. "That’s not to say that immigration reform has to be accomplished in this Congress — I wish it would be, I'm still pushing for it. But whoever’s running for president as a Republican has to have a rational position."  

Of the GOP presidential candidates, Flake said business tycoon Donald Trump "does not" have a rational position, but those who do include former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, Rubio and Graham.  

On Sunday, Ryan said pieces such as border enforcement or interior security are possible this Congress, but comprehensive legislation won't happen "with a president whose proven himself untrustworthy on this issue." That position supports a pledge Ryan offered to House conservatives last month as he sought a consensus for his speaker bid.  

Following his comments on national network TV, conservatives said they scored a major concession from the Wisconsin Republican, who has championed efforts to grant legal status to undocumented immigrants. Members of the House Freedom Caucus said they don't think he would support that even as a stand-alone bill, separate from a comprehensive overhaul.  

McCain agreed that Obama's actions were "very, very damaging" to the process, especially since Obama didn't make a strong push for an immigration overhaul when Democrats "had overwhelming majorities in 2009 and 2010."  

Senate Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin, a fellow gang of eight member, panned using Obama as a scapegoat, noting that the bipartisan Senate bill died in the Republican-controlled House prior to any executive action.  

"For some people in politics, any excuse will do — this one is the least credible," the Illinois Democrat said. "The president took the action he did because the House failed to act. And now, Speaker Ryan is using that as an excuse to continue to fail to act."  

Emma Dumain contributed to this report. Related: Parsing Ryan: Immigration Stance Open to Interpretation Ryan: Immigration Overhaul Off the Table Under Obama Marco Rubio Refuses to Attack Jeff Sessions on Immigration  GOP Poll: Republican Brand Tarnished Among Hispanics See photos, follies, HOH Hits and Misses and more at Roll Call's new video site. Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call in your inbox or on your iPhone.