WASHINGTON – The eight senators meet in private several times a week, alternating between Sen. John McCains and Sen. Charles Schumers offices. They sit in armchairs arranged in a circle and sip water or soft drinks as they debate temporary workers and border security. In a capital driven by partisanship and gridlock, they are determined to be the exception and actually get something done.
This is immigration policys Gang of Eight. With them lies the best hope in years for overhauling the nations Byzantine immigration laws – and they know it. Thats partly why they are, by all accounts, working amazingly well together as a self-imposed deadline approaches for their sweeping legislation to be released.
I tell you what, this is one of the best experiences Ive had. Everybodys serious, everybodys knowledgeable, theyve been around the issue, said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. He said its sort of what I came up here to do – sit down with serious people to solve serious and hard problems.
In addition to McCain, R-Ariz., Schumer, D-N.Y., and Graham, the gang includes Sens. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., a potential 2016 presidential candidate; Dick Durbin, D-Ill.; Jeff Flake, R-Ariz.; Michael Bennet, D-Colo.; and Robert Menendez, D-N.J.
They meet for an hour or an hour and a half at a time on days when the Senate is in session. No reporters stake out these meetings and aides stand or sit in the background, behind their bosses. Theyre diligent about avoiding leaks and tight-lipped on the details of how their talks are going.
Im guardedly optimistic, McCain almost invariably says when asked.
Theres a focus on getting a bill that can pass and become law, and the sessions are almost an oasis from the fights over the budget that have occupied Congress much of the year.
Its nice to be in a room where people are actually trying to solve problems and accomplish something, said Bennet.
The legislation the group is working on would secure the border; provide a pathway to citizenship for 11 million illegal immigrants already in the country, contingent on a secure border first; crack down on employers; and improve legal immigration.
Senators have indicated some consensus on elements related to border security and the path to citizenship.
The senators have been working toward a self-imposed March deadline to release their legislation, although it now seems that might slip until they return from a two-week recess the second week of April.
The group came together when Graham phoned Schumer the weekend after the November election. Obamas resounding victory among Latino voters had just sealed his win and underscored to Republicans like McCain and Graham that the GOP needed to act on immigration.
Schumer, McCain and Graham all are veterans of past failed attempts on the issue, most prominently in 2007 when legislation backed by then-President George W. Bush failed on the Senate floor.
Schumer later recounted that Graham said, The band is back, lets do immigration and told him McCain was on board. And my heart went pitter-patter, Schumer said in telling the anecdote at a breakfast hosted by Politico in January.
The senators worked to round up others. Flake said Schumer approached him during Congress lame-duck session.
I said I just always wanted to be part of a gang. I grew up in Snowflake, Ariz., the South side didnt offer much, Flake said.