A few days after Republicans took an electoral beating from Hispanic voters, Sen. Lindsey Graham made a phone call to Sen. Chuck Schumer.
The South Carolina Republican wanted to restart the stalled talks with Schumer on immigration from a couple years back. But this time, he noted, his closest Senate friend was ready to reengage in the emotionally charged issue: John McCain.
"My heart skipped a beat," Schumer told Graham, according to a person familiar with the call.
McCain and Schumer are two Senate heavyweights who had never developed much of a relationship. The Arizona Republican previously would criticize the shrewd New Yorker's motives and the Democrat attacked McCain during the 2008 presidential elections.
But over the course of five meetings in their respective offices culminating in a deal-making session last Wednesday, the two men quickly developed a close relationship now at the center of the high-stakes immigration debate. McCain grew tight with Schumer after the two men helped defuse a partisan war over the filibuster, which served as a basis of trust for the immigration talks.
How McCain and Schumer came together is a sign of the shifting politics in the immigration debate -- particularly in the Republican Party. McCain, an architect of the failed 2007 deal with the late Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), spent the following two election cycles distancing himself from that proposal as he courted Republican primary voters who considered the 2007 plan "amnesty" for lawbreakers.
But McCain said Monday that the electoral politics of the issue had changed and that his party needs to adapt on immigration if it wants to lure Latino voters.
Schumer told POLITICO that the turning point in the talks came "when there was a realization that a path to citizenship was a necessity."
The odd couple managed to lure to the immigration table a powerful roster of senators from both parties, including rising GOP star Marco Rubio -- who has made revamping immigration law one of his primary political causes in a possible 2016 presidential bid.
A key turning point for the group came when Florida Sen. Rubio got heavily involved in the effort. For months, the Cuban-American -- who will be pivotal in selling any deal to conservatives inside and outside the Beltway -- had been positioning himself as ready to assume a leadership role on the contentious issue. But he had never introduced legislation on the matter.
Other participants included one of the Senate's leading liberals, Dick Durbin of Illinois, and another veteran of the 2007 effort, Robert Menendez of New Jersey. The bipartisan group met with powerful constituencies on the left and right -- such as the AFL-CIO and U.S. Chamber of Commerce -- and both labor and business leaders appear closer to cutting a deal as a result.
This past weekend, the bipartisan group ironed out the remaining details of a new proposal, including a pathway to citizenship for the nation's roughly 11 million illegal immigrants. And on Monday, the Senate's new Gang of Eight promised to drive the immigration debate in a way that Washington hasn't witnessed since 2007.
At a jampacked news conference on the third floor of the Senate, Schumer and McCain seemed like old pals who were ready to unite two bitterly divided parties. They lavished praise on each other for forging a deal.
"He has been the glue in our group. His wisdom, his strength, his courage, his steadfastness and many other adjectives that I'll skip at the moment," Schumer said before turning to McCain and saying jokingly, "You want me to go on?"
McCain later referred to the New Yorker as an "ever-congenial" senator.
Whether this new alliance holds is an open question, as the group seeks to unveil formal legislation in March with the hopes of passing a Senate bill by late spring or early summer. House passage is far trickier.
Quietly, the bipartisan group reached out to Rubio in December, and the Florida freshman laid out what he wanted to see in an immigration plan. In particular, he said, he wouldn't back a special pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants. Rubio said that those in the country illegally could enter the existing immigration system, but only after a series of border enforcement and other measures were taken.
Rubio's staff continued to engage in back-channel negotiations with the bipartisan gang. And even as late as mid-January, it was not yet clear whether Rubio would break from the group or join hands in the bipartisan effort.
But as the pace of the behind-the-scenes talks quickened, so did Rubio's public sales job. Taking advantage of his clout on the right, Rubio earlier this month first outlined his proposal to an editorial writer for The Wall Street Journal and then tried to sell the framework of the nascent plan to more than a dozen conservative media outlets, including commentators Bill O'Reilly, Mark Levin and Laura Ingraham. He even pitched the approach in numerous interviews with Spanish-media outlets and to The New York Times' liberal editorial page.
Rubio received a surprisingly warm response from conservatives -- something McCain and Graham struggled with in their bruising 2007 effort. And that helped pave the way for the GOP senators in the group to get on board with a pathway to citizenship.
"The Republican Party is losing support of our Hispanic citizens," McCain said Monday. "And we realize that there are many issues on which we think we are in agreement with our Hispanic citizens, but this is a preeminent issue with those citizens."
Under the group's agreement, before illegal immigrants can become permanent U.S. citizens, new border security measures first must take effect. And as those security measures are implemented, the proposal says, illegal immigrants would be forced to register with the government, undergo a background check, and pay a fine and back taxes so they can obtain legal status on a probationary basis. That would allow them to live and work legally in the U.S., unless they have committed serious crimes that could subject them to deportation.
Following the enforcement measures, those with probationary legal status would be required to learn English and civics and undergo further background checks, among other things, before obtaining permanent residency.
The only exceptions would be for farm workers -- as well as young individuals who unknowingly entered the country illegally as children -- in a move similar to the DREAM Act proposal that has stalled in Congress for years.
By Sunday evening, the six original senators won the support of two more negotiators as freshman Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, the chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, signed on to the plan.
But in a sign of the challenges ahead, not everyone who participated in the talks ended up backing the proposal. Sen. Mike Lee, the tea party freshman from Utah, criticized the proposals for agriculture workers and said it would grant "special benefits to illegal immigrants based on their unlawful presence in the country."
Still, the group's participants insisted that the political landscape seemed ripe for a deal in 2013.
"I hope the third time is a charm," Graham said, referring to the 2007 effort and his talks with Schumer that stalled in 2010.
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