Gang of Eight Accelerates Immigration Reform Pace

Meetings began shortly after the presidential election.

ByABC News
January 30, 2013, 10:54 AM

Jan. 30, 2013— -- "The band is back. Let's do immigration."

Those were the words Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said when he spoke with Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) on the Saturday after the presidential election in November. Graham had already talked to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and was eager to get the ball rolling on immigration reform.

Talks between the now public "gang of eight" senators and their staffs began quietly, while the nation was preoccupied with fiscal cliff negotiations. After a break for the holidays, the group met again last Wednesday and finalized their immigration framework over the weekend before taking it public on Monday morning.

Schumer and McCain laid out how their immigration plan took shape and where it's heading next during a Wednesday morning discussion led by Politico's Mike Allen.

While the exact details of the framework have yet to be agreed upon, the core principles are set. The group met on Tuesday evening in McCain's office to start tackling the parameters of how to measure border security, Schumer said. The meetings alternate between McCain's office and his, he added, as a sign of bipartisanship.

How to measure whether the border is secure, one of the prerequisites the gang named for putting the 11 million undocumented immigrants in this country on a path to citizenship, will be critical, particularly for Republicans who have railed against Democrats for being soft on the issue.

"I've always been for [immigration reform,]" McCain said, "but I've always been concerned about border security, I think with good reason."

He said the group – they "hate" the word gang – has been looking at surveillance technological advancements in place in countries like Iraq and Afghanistan for insight on how to approach border security. Their staffs are meeting Wednesday with the Department of Homeland Security to discuss the issue.

The group also talked Tuesday night about how to go about giving citizenship to undocumented residents while still being fair to immigrants who came into the country legally.

Schumer said the gang plans to meet every Tuesday and Thursday, and their staffs will meet every Wednesday. The senators want to go through the committee process, he said, adding that the process has become all too rare in Congress.

He added that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has said that he will make putting the bill on the upper chamber's floor a priority when the group is ready, likely this spring.

"This is going to be fragile," McCain said, adding that the group "will have to take tough votes" to keep a bill intact.

Schumer echoed that sentiment, and said he expects a bill to linger in floor deliberations for up to three or four weeks.

"I think we should have a full and robust debate," he said.

Both men said they recognize that they're not going to get unanimous agreement on such a contentious issue, but said getting as much Republican support in the Senate as possible will be crucial to any bill's passage in the House. McCain said that the group hopes to attract as many as 80 votes in the Senate, an ambitious goal.

While McCain said he has not spoken directly to House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), he is encouraged by his support for the idea of immigration reform. He said the gang also "wants to work" with a group of House members currently discussing immigration reform.

Schumer lavished praise on McCain and the other Republican members of the gang, including Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.)

"They're getting a lot of flack," he said, "and they're showing strength."

Rubio, in particular, has made it a point to go on conservative talk shows, such as Rush Limbaugh's Fox News program, and advocate for the framework.

"He's been Daniel in the lion's den," Schumer said.

"There's a trace of masochism in all three of our families," McCain quipped, speaking of himself, Rubio and Graham.

All joking aside, both senators said any bill must "maintain the center," as McCain put it. McCain added that he considered the 1986 attempt at immigration reform a form of "amnesty" because it failed to find a way to prevent people from crossing the border illegally in the future.

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) and Schumer spoke by phone with members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus on Sunday. Schumer said he is confident "they understand" the need for compromise. Republicans have demanded a secure border and a way for employers to verify the status of potential employees, and those points are part of the framework spelled out by the gang.

Both McCain and Schumer said they support some form of "super" Social Security card that is impervious to tampering. While Schumer said, "some on my side may not be there yet," he thinks employers need a way to weed out people trying to seek employment illegally, and that employers need to then be held accountable. He also said that the biometric scan currently administered when people enter the country legally should also be conducted when they leave to ensure people don't overstay their visas.

Schumer said he has had several face-to-face conversations with the president about immigration reform and that, "He cares about it. He knows how important it is for the economy of this country."

The two spoke Sunday night and Schumer said Obama gave his support to the gang and that "he's giving us the space to get something done." McCain said he has not personally spoken with the president about the framework.

Obama's broad immigration reform speech on Tuesday reflected that attitude, but a more specific set of principles released by the White House following the president's remarks called for several things not included in the gang's framework, including protections for same-sex couples.

While Schumer supports the idea, he underlined that the core principles of the framework take precedence, McCain called it "a red herring."

"If you load this up with social issues and things that are controversial," McCain said, "then it will endanger the issue."

Less controversial are the ideas that DREAMers - undocumented immigrants brought to the country as young people - should get priority when it comes to citizenship, and that a "special" system be put in place for agricultural workers.

While they haven't reached an agreement on all aspects of what a bill should look like, both men said they think "partisanship has reached its peak," and that they are encouraged by the bipartisan support for immigration reform.

"The bottom line is a path to citizenship for the 11 million," Schumer said.

"Having a country with 11 million people living in the shadows," McCain said, "is not something we want to teach our kids about."