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Immigration Effort Takes Flight Again

Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle feel the time for an immigration overhaul is now. What form that legislation takes is up for discussion. From left: Sens. Schumer, Durbin, Rubio and Menendez at the news conference Monday.

An immigration overhaul appears to be the one item on President Barack Obama’s second-term agenda moving on the fast track — with a bipartisan framework in the Senate, leaders in both parties on board and inexorable electoral math at its back.

Of course, the story is a familiar one. A second-term president making immigration a priority. A bipartisan framework. And failure.

This time, the senators hope it’ll be different.

For Sen. John McCain, the answer is simple: “Elections, elections,” the Arizona Republican said.

“The Republican Party is losing the support of our Hispanic voters,” he said at Monday’s bipartisan news conference. McCain even acknowledged that the new framework they announced is not much different from legislation the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., drew up years ago — and watched go down in defeat.

“We cannot continue as a nation with 11 million people residing in the shadows,” McCain said.

The bipartisan group appeared as hopeful as any before it that a deal finally might get across the finish line this year — and the White House is hoping to seize the momentum, with a speech on immigration planned Tuesday in Nevada and a full-court press from allied unions, the business community and immigrant advocates.

But no push will be more powerful than the cold, hard stats of the Latino demographic wave — and the sweeping Electoral College victory Latinos helped deliver to the president.

“In the battleground state of Colorado, when President Obama got 85 percent of the Hispanic vote, it did not go unnoticed by the Republicans,” Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., said.

Durbin said the election showed Hispanics have become a political force, just as other groups did before them.

“In the flow of American history, this happens over and over again,” he said. “When emerging groups become a political force, they are given respect and recognition under the law, and they become part of the power establishment of America. ... And this is the moment for the Hispanic population.”

The White House took credit for the new framework. But it stopped short of embracing every element, including its key compromise — tying improved border enforcement to a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants.

Press Secretary Jay Carney said the border has never been more secure than it has been under Obama, and he lauded the bipartisan deal as one that dovetails with the president’s own immigration principles detailed in 2011.

Of course, then-President George W. Bush tried hard in his second term to pass an immigration overhaul and had a bipartisan agreement in hand as well. Many of the opponents of that effort remain, and on Monday, many of them were more than happy to pan the latest effort.

Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., took to the Senate floor to warn against an approach that mirrors the failed efforts of the past. He said that now, like then, a small group of senators had met in secret to hammer out the details. “Masters of the universe had decided,” he said derisively, and noted those earlier efforts failed to pass.

Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, also called the latest approach “amnesty,” saying it would fail to address the problems that led to illegal immigration in the first place and simply encourage more of it.

In a twist of fate that might just suggest this could be immigration’s year, Smith was term-limited out last year as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. The new chairman, Rep. Robert W. Goodlatte, R-Va., issued a far more circumspect statement calling the immigration system “in desperate need of repair.” As for the specifics, “The American people and members of Congress have a lot of questions about how this would work, what it would cost, and how it will prevent illegal immigration in the future,” he said.

Perhaps more importantly, Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, has made it clear that this is the year for immigration change — name-checking it last week in remarks to the Ripon Society even as he dismissed the bulk of the president’s agenda.

And backers say they have learned some of the lessons from past failures. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka and U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Thomas J. Donohue, for example, are already meeting to talk about the future flow of workers, Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., told reporters Monday.

“While we’ve been negotiating these principles, they have been sitting down talking to one another because it would be best from all points of view if business and labor could agree on a future [immigration] flow proposal,” Schumer said. “... And according to both Donohue and Trumka, they are making really good progress.”

Of course, Schumer, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, Refugees and Border Security, noted that a bill must still be drafted and skeptics won over. Still, he said the group hopes to mark up a bill and pass it by late spring or summer.

The group of senators who drafted the principles includes Republicans McCain, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Marco Rubio of Florida and Jeff Flake of Arizona. Along with Schumer, the Democrats include Durbin, Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Michael Bennet of Colorado.

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, had been wooed to be part of the group but refused to sign on Monday, saying the plan was too generous to people here illegally.

Schumer said he and Durbin spoke with Obama on Sunday to update him on the group’s progress. “He couldn’t be more pleased. He strongly supports this effort,” Schumer said.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., endorsed the effort as he opened the Senate on Monday afternoon. “This is a positive first step,” he said. “The real test will be to pass a bill.”

Notably, Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who faces re-election next year, issued a lukewarm statement calling for regular order. “This effort is too important to be written in a back room and sent to the floor with a take-it-or-leave-it approach.”

For Durbin, though, the larger issue is as old as the nation.

“This nation of immigrants has been debating the issue of immigration since the first group got off the boat and wanted to know why the second group was coming,” Durbin said.

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