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CongressNow: Republican Fractures Remain on Immigration Plan

Outraged conservatives forced Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) to drop his support for a controversial immigration-reform plan last year. But immigration policy experts, and even the candidate himself, are suggesting he could again support the ambitious plan if he wins the White House.

“But I do ask for your trust that when I say I remain committed to fair, practical and comprehensive immigration reform, I mean it. I think I have earned that trust,” McCain told about 2,000 people at the National Council of La Raza’s annual convention in July.

McCain, along with Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), spearheaded bipartisan efforts in the Senate last year to resurrect and pass comprehensive reform legislation after failing to push through a bill in 2006.

Their plan called for increased border security, a guest-worker program and a “pathway” to citizenship for illegal immigrants in the United States. It ultimately died in the House.

Conservative Republicans were furious with McCain for his support of the plan, which they viewed as offering amnesty to illegal workers. They nearly derailed his White House bid over it.

Ultimately, McCain adopted a less ambitious immigration plan during the GOP primary season, putting border security atop his agenda.

But McCain has walked a fine line between appeasing his party’s conservative base while courting Latino voters and trying to keep his promise to find a humane way to deal with the more than 11 million illegal immigrants living in the United States.

In a January GOP presidential primary debate, McCain said he wouldn’t vote for his own comprehensive bill if it came to the floor for a vote, a statement that drew criticism from Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.), who said McCain was “abandoning his courageous stance.” It was about the same time that McCain first said he “got it” and that he understood the American people want border enforcement first.

But while McCain’s focus has turned to border enforcement, campaign aides and immigration experts say McCain, if elected, would aim to enact a comprehensive plan.

His campaign Web site outlines a comprehensive immigration plan, putting border security and enforcement first, then calls for prosecuting employers who hire illegal immigrants.

Under his plan, a reliable electronic employment verification system would be put into place and the needs of the nation’s work force for high- and low-skilled labor examined. It does not mention a pathway to citizenship for illegal workers.

But immigration policy experts are certain that a broader plan would emerge from a McCain administration.

Doris Meissner, senior fellow with the Migration Policy Institute, said GOP opposition forced McCain to adopt a more piecemeal approach to an immigration overhaul but said it contains many of the same goals of the bipartisan plan.

“Anybody that’s watched it believes he’s still committed to comprehensive reform, but he has changed his emphasis and sequence and how he would get there,” she said.

“McCain says he’s gotten the message from the public that there needs to be control of borders first, then once you establish control, turn the attention to other issues,” she added.

Tamar Jacoby, president of ImmigrationWorks USA, a pro-business think tank, said McCain has not shifted position but is simply being pragmatic.

“He’s realized reform has to happen in stages,” she said.

Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, predicted that if McCain were elected he would return to his previous position and attempt to give all illegal immigrants legal status right away.

“He fully intends to push for amnesty in his first term,” he said.

McCain’s real stance is rooted in his plan from two years ago, not in what he’s been saying the past few months, Krikorian said.

“It’s screamingly obvious he doesn’t mean a word of it,” he said. “It’s so obvious because McCain is terrible at lying.”

Regardless, talk of immigration reform has been muted during this election cycle as the political agenda has been dominated by the Iraq War, energy and food prices, the housing crunch, unemployment rates and health care.

“It’s not a major issue for most voters,” Jacoby said.

But she expects if McCain is elected it could be an issue that rises to the surface quickly because it’s one where he can find common ground with a Democratic Congress.

“It would be a way to show the public that he can work together with the Democrats to solve problems,” she said.

McCain would have a narrow window for pushing immigration legislation through Congress. He’d likely have to propose it early in 2009 because lawmakers have shown a reluctance to consider immigration measures in election years.