There’s a cantankerous, blunt-spoken voice conspicuously absent from the immigration debate roiling Congress these days.
Yes, the Senate is missing John McCain.
The Republican senator is still undergoing treatment for brain cancer in Arizona while Capitol Hill is engulfed in contentious talks over his signature issue. For members of both parties, it’s almost unthinkable that Congress could assemble a deal on border security and legalize some undocumented immigrants without McCain: He was behind two previous reform efforts in 2007 and 2013. Both fell short, but those involved say McCain gets credit for pushing the initiatives as far as they got.
“Every time I talk to him he tells me I hope we can get DACA and comprehensive immigration reform done,” said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), referring to the attempt to enshrine the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program into law. He and McCain led the so-called Gang of Eight effort five years ago. “Members on both sides miss him dearly. “
“Sen. McCain has been such an important player in every immigration debate that I’ve ever had,” said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine). “His absence has been deeply felt.”
McCain has been speaking with Schumer and Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) on the topic, and has been staying as engaged as he can, given his condition. On Monday, he and Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) released an immigration proposal billed as a compromise, though it is unlikely to break the logjam in a divided Republican Party if McCain is not in Washington to sell it. The White House has already rejected the proposal.
Privately, Republicans say they’ve been given no guidance on whether the six-term senator will return in time to put his imprimatur on the negotiations.
McCain teamed with Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) during the final years of the George W. Bush administration, when a comprehensive effort failed amid opposition from both the right and left. Two years after his presidential bid in 2008, McCain shifted to the right to quell a tough Senate primary challenge, releasing a campaign ad saying it was time to “complete the danged fence.”
But McCain regrouped in 2013 as the most powerful Republican force behind the Gang of Eight bill, which passed the Senate with 68 votes before being ignored by the House.
At a July news conference, shortly after McCain’s cancer diagnosis was made public, Graham emotionally recalled how he first got involved in the issue during the Arizona senator’s first presidential campaign nearly two decades ago.
“He sees the abuse of the coyotes [smugglers], he sees women living in the shadows and have no rights and are being exploited and on and on and on. So, I started because John asked me,” Graham said then.
McCain’s absence from the current debate is “a big loss for the body,” Graham said. “He’d be right in the mix.”
That’s especially true as the ongoing immigration talks became increasingly entwined with defense spending, another top McCain priority.
McCain has long been focused on securing more defense funding as part of a budget deal. But he has accepted the political reality that Congress also must forge some sort of immigration pact to protect Dreamers in tandem, a McCain aide said. In fact, McCain reached out to Coons recently after hearing the Delaware Democrat was looking at introducing a bare-bones bill offering border security in exchange for protection for Dreamers, the aide said.
McCain’s expertise on immigration and the military would be “pretty powerful” in the ongoing negotiations, said Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.).
With McCain sidelined, Schumer now the Democratic leader and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) skeptical of ongoing bipartisan talks, McCain’s Gang of Eight is no more. Instead, more than 20 senators in both parties are meeting regularly, but mostly to serve as a backstop to flagging negotiations among the No. 2 party leaders in each chamber.
There is deep doubt in the Senate that either of those efforts will be successful if they continue on their current trajectory. Someone with McCain’s stature could help, some involved said.
“When he makes a final decision, he has the moral force and clarity to make that the final decision for everybody,” said Leon Fresco, who was Schumer’s chief immigration aide during the 2013 talks and engaged frequently with McCain behind closed doors. “That is incredibly helpful in a negotiation. Otherwise, you can’t ever end the negotiation.”
Republican Sens. James Lankford of Oklahoma and Thom Tillis of North Carolina are trying to assert themselves as a new generation of leaders on immigration. They’ve both endorsed a pathway to citizenship for young immigrants known as Dreamers, but are aligned more with the Trump administration than Flake or Graham on clamping down on family-based migration and ending the diversity visa lottery.
At the same time, first-term conservative Republican Sens. Tom Cotton of Arkansas and David Perdue of Georgia are fighting efforts by moderates to produce a bill that can get 60 votes.
Not everyone agreed, however, that a deal is more difficult without McCain. Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who devised a massive border security deal that helped secure 68 votes in 2013, said he was “actually not” worried that his absence hurts the prospects of a deal.
“Obviously, there’s a void anytime McCain’s not here,” Corker said. “He’d play a huge role here, but the bubbling up of the rank and file is helping solve this problem.”
The landscape has shifted dramatically over the past five years, to the detriment of McCain’s preference for a wide-ranging immigration bill.
“He’s still a voice that believes we should do comprehensive and I think we’ve all agreed that comprehensive is off the table,” Tillis said. “I can’t get inside of his head, but I could see where he’d be a little bit frustrated that we’re not talking about going back to the Gang of Eight and going forward with it.”
Politically, McCain would be more empowered than ever to assert himself on immigration with no fear of repercussion. He just won another six-year term in Arizona as an anti-Trump Republican, even as Donald Trump won his state. And he voted down the GOP’s Obamacare repeal attempt last summer, demonstrating he’s no longer beholden to the party line.
Democrats say the GOP lacks a truth-teller willing to duke it out with members of his own party — and especially President Trump.
“It absolutely was critical to getting the bill passed in 2013. And I can remember him standing on the floor of the Senate: when people said things that are not true, he’d say they are not true,” said Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), a fellow Gang of Eight member. “And that’s what we’re missing.”
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