Senator John McCain isn't ready to concede that House Republicans won't pass real immigration reform. But he is watching the clock.
"It's very important that we try to act before the end of this year," McCain said at a town hall in Mesa, Arizona, on Tuesday. Waiting any longer will run into campaign season. But given looming battles over funding the government and increasing the debt ceiling, passing immigration legislation before 2014 may be unrealistic.
"I remain guardedly optimistic that our friends in the House of Representatives will agree to their legislative process and then we can get to conference," McCain, who was joined by fellow Arizona Republican Senator Jeff Flake, told the audience. He cited the array of interests backing reform, including major business groups, labor unions, and evangelical organizations, as evidence of its momentum.
House leaders are moving forward with a series of bills on border security and visa programs, but they've yet to decide how--and whether--to offer legal status and a path to citizenship to the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants living in America today. McCain is still hoping the House will support a citizenship component in a final deal.
"I don't accept your premise that the House of Representatives will absolutely reject a path to citizenship," McCain told a reporter at the forum. "I think we'll know more in two or three months."
The Senate bill would require undocumented immigrants to meet a variety of requirements, including paying a fine and learning English, in order to obtain citizenship. The process would take at least 13 years for most eligible applicants. But among House Republicans, it's not clear that the caucus supports even limited legal status for undocumented immigrants. Rep. Bob Goodlatte, chair of the House Judiciary Committee overseeing immigration legislation, recently suggested that even immigrants who were brought to the country illegally as children should not get a new path to citizenship.
Asked whether he might consider a deal that granted citizenship only to young undocumented immigrants, McCain didn't dismiss the idea out of hand, but he said it would leave major policy holes.
"I think we'd have to cross that bridge when we come to it, but you'd still be faced over time by the same issue of 11 million people living in the shadows," he said.
He added later: "Ours is not engraved in concrete, but a path to citizenship would have to be a part of it."
House Republicans have also complained that they fear President Obama will find ways to avoid enforcing security provisions of the bill, citing his administration's recent decision to delay implementing the health care law's employer mandate. McCain insisted that a combination of judicial and Congressional oversight would make it difficult to circumvent new enforcement requirements.
"If you use that logic, [in] which people are saying 'Well, don't pass legislation because the president won't enforce it,' then let's not pass any laws," McCain said.
Senator Marco Rubio, who co-sponsored the Senate immigration bill with McCain and Flake, has warned Republicans that Obama might unilaterally "legalize" the entire undocumented immigrant population via executive order if the House fails to pass a bill. Flake, for his part, didn't think this was a realistic possibility.
"I think that would be very difficult to do," he said. "I don't think that could happen.