John McCain: We Don't Need 20,000 More Border Agents

PHOTO: U.S. Border Patrol agents salute during a memorial service for slain comrade Brian Terry on January 21, 2011 in Tucson, Arizona.John Moore/Getty Images
U.S. Border Patrol agents salute during a memorial service for slain comrade Brian Terry on January 21, 2011 in Tucson, Arizona.

Adding 20,000 additional Border Patrol agents is not necessary to pass immigration reform, a top Republican said on Tuesday.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) helped write the Senate's immigration bill and voted for an amendment that would spend $46 billion on new border security measures, while doubling the size of the Border Patrol. But now, McCain admits the plan was simply meant to secure Republican votes and that he is open to other ways to secure the border.

"I'll give you a little straight talk, we don't need 20,000 additional border patrol agents," the Arizona senator said at an event sponsored by the AFL-CIO.

"I voted for it so friends of mine would have comfort that we are securing the border," McCain added. "But the real securing of the border is with technology as opposed to individuals, although we do certainly need individuals."

McCain's comments are an indication that senators are willing to bend on some significant provisions when it comes to negotiating a final bill with the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.

The Senate's plan to add 20,000 additional border agents was one of the most important parts of the overall package. It was part of a massive rewrite of the bill's border security language and helped the proposal pass with 68 votes, including 14 Republicans.

But the so-called "border surge" ran into criticism on both sides of the aisle. Republicans said it simply threw money at the problem, while Democrats and immigrant-rights activists noted it could unnecessarily "militarize" the border.

The Arizona senator on Tuesday called a path to citizenship "a fundamental element" of any immigration overhaul, but said that other details "could be adjusted" as long as the overall bill secures the border.

Meanwhile, an alternative border bill in the House, crafted by Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), has found bipartisan support. That proposal calls for the Department of Homeland Security to develop a plan to guarantee the apprehension of 90 percent of illegal crossers in high-risk areas within 33 months. The measure unanimously passed the House Homeland Security Committee in May.

Although the House might not vote on its immigration bills until October, both McCain and Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.) -- who spoke alongside the senator -- expressed optimism that a deal would get done.

McCain said there is a "good chance of convincing" House Republicans that allowing undocumented immigrants to earn their citizenship is the right thing to do. He took a swipe at Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), who has said that drug smugglers outnumber standout students among undocumented youth and opposes all legalization plans.

"We're not going to talk about people with cantaloupe calves. We're not going to engage in that kind of despicable rhetoric," he said. "I believe in America and I believe at the end of the day, we're going to do the right thing."

Becerra said that if the Senate's bill was put on the House floor, it would pass with a bipartisan majority. But he said it's a matter of convincing GOP leaders like Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) to put something on the floor that could encounter resistance from a large swath of fellow party members.

"I firmly believe … that this is the year we are going to do it so long as the folks in the Capitol put country ahead of party," he said.