How Sens. Schumer and McCain teamed up to lead push for immigration reform

Charles Schumer has finally learned to laugh at John McCain’s jokes, and McCain has put aside his concerns about Schumer’s partisan reputation.

Schumer, the senior Democratic senator from New York, and McCain, the senior Republican senator from Arizona, have become the public face of the 844-page comprehensive immigration reform bill now pending in the upper chamber.

The bill’s success will depend largely on the bond Schumer and McCain have forged over the two dozen meetings they’ve held to put it together, many lasting until late at night. 

They have established a jocular rapport in public, ribbing each other and seeming to genuinely enjoy each other’s company. 

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Schumer quipped at a breakfast sponsored by The Christian Science Monitor Thursday that McCain barely graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy. McCain has deadpanned to reporters that Schumer is a “jerk” and that most Senate colleagues feel the same way. 

“It’s going down in history as the odd couple,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), one of McCain’s closest friends, said with a chuckle.

The casual tone set by McCain and Schumer has suffused the rest of the Senate’s Gang of Eight, the group of four Democrats and four Republicans who drafted the bill. The other members of the gang look to Schumer and McCain for leadership, but their sense of camaraderie isn’t quite the same.

“I think it would be appropriate to call the bill the Schumer-McCain bill because these two senators really started this process and they have the smallest egos among us,” Graham said with a hint of irony at a press conference last week. 

McCain and Schumer bonded during a recent trip to the Arizona-Mexico border, which Sens. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), two other members of the gang, attended. 

When Schumer, who is Jewish, noted the trip would take place during Passover, McCain promised to provide latkes — potato pancakes traditionally eaten during Hanukkah.

McCain made up for the malapropism by sending a staffer with chocolate-covered matzah — the traditional Passover food — to pick Schumer up at the airport when he arrived in Arizona. 

Friendships on Capitol Hill often thrive on success, and McCain and Schumer can smell the possibility of a big legislative victory. 

Comprehensive immigration reform is likely to be the biggest achievement of the 113th Congress, and it would be the biggest policy win of Schumer’s political career. It would well make up for him falling short on legislation to expand background checks for firearm sales.

McCain’s biggest legislative accomplishment was the 2002 passage of comprehensive campaign finance reform. But in the wake of a Supreme Court ruling in 2010 that undermined the law, comprehensive immigration reform would become the new crown jewel of his legacy. 

McCain dismisses that as a driving motivation.

“I’ll think about my legacy the day after I retire, which could be any day now,” he quipped. 

In their more serious moments, Schumer lauds McCain’s courageous service during the Vietnam War, when he spent five years in enemy captivity. McCain compares Schumer to his former legislative partner, the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), who earned a reputation for trustworthiness among some Republicans. 

They’ve bonded over sharing a role model in Teddy Roosevelt, the maverick Republican who, like Schumer, won a seat in the New York Assembly in his early 20s. 

Unveiling the immigration bill at a press conference last week, Schumer introduced McCain as “a great personal friend of mine.”

Schumer and McCain had little relationship to speak of a year ago. 

In April of last year, McCain blasted Schumer for media “grandstanding” when Schumer scheduled a Rules Committee hearing on Arizona’s controversial 2010 immigration law, S.B. 1070, without consulting him.

Schumer chastised McCain a few months earlier for joking during a floor debate about military detentions, that “Long Island was part — albeit sometimes regrettably — part of the United States of America.” McCain made the flip remark while citing a legal case about the military detention of German soldiers captured on Long Island. 

Schumer called for an apology, but the one he received was not the most sincere offered in Senate history. 

“I’m sorry there’s at least one of my colleagues that can’t take a joke, and so I apologize if I offended him and hope that someday he will have a sense of humor,” McCain said. 

Schumer now laughs uproariously when McCain tells reporters his grand strategy is to create an even playing field for the Republican Party to woo Hispanic voters by touting smaller government and “pro-life” values. 

McCain was initially wary of Schumer, the Senate Democrats’ master political strategist, who served as the architect of the Democratic takeover of the upper chamber in 2006. 

“John was very suspicious of Schumer because he’s very good at being a Democrat. He was a primary force for getting the Democratic majority. Chuck can throw a blow,” said Graham. 

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) still hasn’t entirely forgiven Schumer for using a vote for the Wall Street bailout to hammer him during his 2008 re-election race. Schumer also voted for the bailout, as did the entire Democratic leadership, which they saw as necessary to avert a financial catastrophe. Schumer at the time was the chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. 

“Clearly any Republican who works with Chuck Schumer has to go in with both eyes open. There’s very little trust,” said Ron Bonjean, a Republican strategist. “It’s a modification of the old cliché, ‘Don’t trust, but verify.’ ”

The thaw between McCain and Schumer came after the 2012 election, when Graham acted as a go-between. 

The South Carolina lawmaker had worked closely with Schumer for several months in 2010 negotiating a comprehensive immigration reform package, which ultimately stalled. 

“After the election. I called Chuck. We’d done an op-ed piece in 2010 about the need for immigration reform,” said Graham. “After the 2012 election, I called Chuck and said, ‘Let’s get the band back together.’

“I was telling John. I’ve worked with the guy. He’s a man of his word. He seriously wants to solve immigration. He’s got political motives. We got political motives. But he’s a guy we can work with,” said Graham.

Schumer said his heart “skipped a beat” when he heard that McCain was willing to work with him because he knew the comprehensive legislation would have a better chance with the 2008 GOP presidential nominee on board.

McCain said his confidence in Schumer increased dramatically when the two of them helped negotiate Senate rules reform before the start of the 113th Congress. The deal averted Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) threat to change the filibuster rule through a controversial unilateral procedure known as the “nuclear option” because of its potential to melt down bipartisan relations.

A source close to McCain said, “When he’s in the middle of a fight, his feelings come out. If he’s working closely with a member, he feels very positive about it. If someone is on the other side, they can feel the heat.”