McCain, Hatch, Rubio offer optimism on immigration on return for lame duck

Three key Senate Republican players on immigration returned to a lame-duck session of Congress on Tuesday offering optimism that a deal on immigration could be made next year.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said he believes it’s “very likely” the Senate will come up with a comprehensive immigration bill that could include enforcement and a way of dealing with illegal immigrants in the country.

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A pathway to residency or citizenship for those illegal immigrants was the major stumbling block to immigration reform efforts in the last decade.

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) said “everything ought to be on the table” in the immigration talks, while McCain said there’s a “sense of urgency” in the GOP to deal with the issue.

Sen. Marco Rubio said he was “hopeful” lawmakers would be able to work on something, but added his position remains that Congress should take action on strengthening border security first.

“As I've said, in my opinion, the first steps in all of this is to win the confidence of the American people by modernizing the legal immigration issue and by improving enforcements of the existing law,” he said. “And then, obviously, we're going to have to deal with 11 million people who are here in undocumented status.

“I think it'll be a lot easier to figure that out if we do those other steps first. But like I said, there are going to be a lot of opinions on this.”

Republican soul searching on immigration has stepped up after President Obama’s victory in last week’s presidential election. Obama soundly defeated Republican nominee Mitt Romney among Hispanic voters.

In the wake of the election, conservative talk-show host Sean Hannity and pundit Charles Krauthhammer have both urged Republicans to work on an immigration plan that would include a pathway to residence for those in the country illegally.

“There's a sense of urgency in the Republican Party for obvious reasons, and I'm sure that everybody's ready to deal. But the specifics? Too early,” McCain said Tuesday when asked about a comprehensive bill that included a pathway to citizenship.

“There are a lot of very important legal considerations that have to be made, but I've always been empathetic towards resolving this problem one way or the other,” said Hatch.

McCain had abandoned his support for a comprehensive bill during a 2010 primary challenge from former Rep. J.D. Hayworth (R-Ariz.).

But on Tuesday, he sounded more like the McCain who championed a comprehensive immigration reform plan backed by President George W. Bush.

“Oh, I think it's very likely that we get it resolved, but there are going to be some tough negotiations," he said.

Rubio, a Hispanic who is trusted and beloved by the GOP base, could be the most important player to watch in the negotiations.

He seemed more hesitant to embrace the concept of a big package than McCain or Hatch but didn’t close the door on a single, comprehensive bill. In the past, that’s usually meant a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants in the U.S., stricter border enforcement, a temporary worker program for industries such as agriculture and a crackdown on those who hire undocumented immigrants.

“People are interested in it. It's going to take some time,” he said. “It's an important issue for the country economically, it behooves us to have a 21st century immigration policy.”

Rubio said he “didn’t have anything to announce today” on how involved he’ll be with the issue, but said he was “hopeful we’ll be able to work on something.”

The Florida senator had begun to work on a Republican version of the “DREAM Act” last year before President Obama ordered temporary visas be given to some undocumented immigrants brought here as children.

Hatch, an original sponsor of the DREAM Act, voted against it in 2010, largely because of concerns about a 2012 Tea Party primary challenge.

This story was posted at 8:25 p.m. Tuesday and updated at 9:13 a.m. Wednesday.