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GOP Skeptical of Immigration Talks

Democrats are looking for a replacement for Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) to negotiate a comprehensive immigration reform bill, but they are having a hard time finding Republicans eager to play along.

Graham’s decision earlier this month to abandon efforts to craft an immigration deal this year has forced Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and the White House to try to find a new GOP negotiator to partner with.

But even among the five lawmakers the White House and Schumer have identified as most likely to break ranks and work on a bipartisan agreement — Sens. Scott Brown (Mass.), George LeMieux (Fla.), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), Judd Gregg (N.H.) and Dick Lugar (Ind.) — there appears to be little interest in taking up the Democrats’ cause.

Schumer is scheduled to begin a series of meetings with the targeted Republicans today and Thursday outlining what the bill looks like so far and to discuss the possibility of one or more of them joining the talks.

“I’m willing to listen, but I don’t see a lot of progress in that area, in light of the fact that it’s been made so political” by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Gregg said Tuesday.

Before he would consider signing up to negotiate a bill with Democrats, Gregg said he would need to be convinced that it was “a real effort and not a political agenda.”

Brown also showed little interest Tuesday in joining with Democrats on immigration. “We really should be focusing on jobs right now, and we’re doing everything but,” Brown said, adding that he would “look at every bill” for which his support was elicited but that stricter enforcement of border security laws already on the books is the correct approach in the short term.

Likewise, Murkowski said Tuesday that while “we really need to be focusing on jobs and the economy,” she “told Sen. Schumer I’d at least listen to what he’s got.”

Even Lugar, who has said he wants to tackle the issue this year, has rejected a comprehensive approach in favor of pursuing targeted immigration reforms.

Only LeMieux — who replaced the GOP’s last champion of immigration reform, former Sen. Mel Martinez — appeared interested in tackling the issue this year.

“I’m a person who is willing to work on issues if others are willing to work with me. … I have a responsibility as a Senator to listen to anyone’s solution,” LeMieux said, noting that “our failure to do anything on immigration is a decision, too. Our job is to try to solve problems around here.”

But even the Florida Republican acknowledged that there is little interest in the GOP to tackle immigration. “I think I’m one of the few,” LeMieux said.

[IMGCAP(1)]Even among Democrats, immigration reform is seen largely as a nonstarter.

“I don’t want to do immigration reform until we have the border secured, and as far as I know, it’s not secured yet,” Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) said Tuesday.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said: “I think it’s a very tough time right now. I don’t know what will happen with respect to the immigration bill. I support a comprehensive immigration bill but I’ve got certain specifics I want in that bill.” Feinstein added that an election year and volatile issues don’t mix well. “I’ve been through it before. I think generally it’s a very difficult time for it,” Feinstein said.

Feinstein said that while she and Schumer had been scheduled to discuss the bill this week, that meeting has been canceled.

“I don’t know what’s in the bill that Sen. Schumer has. We had a meeting to discuss it, but it was canceled today. I look forward to it being rescheduled and finding out what’s in it,” Feinstein said. “There’s no state impacted by immigration as much as California. I haven’t seen the bill and I’m the No. 2 person on that subcommittee.”

Despite the tepid response, Senate Democratic leaders said they remain committed to moving the bill even if it means doing so without GOP support.

“Let’s go forward with it,” Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said. “I think there are some Republicans who honestly believe we need comprehensive immigration reform, and if given a chance to vote, they’ll support that effort. … I’ve been around the Senate and House for a long time, and most people will try to avoid a difficult vote if they can. But if you put them on the spot and say you’re just going to have to cast a yes or no vote, sometimes you get a more positive outcome.”

Reid said Tuesday that he still holds out hope the bill can get done. “Others may have given up on immigration, but I haven’t,” he said.

Members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus defended Reid, even though the Majority Leader backtracked Monday from public statements last week indicating that an immigration bill would move ahead of a climate change bill. Caucus members said they were confident that Reid would make good on plans to make floor time for a Senate immigration bill this year.

“He’s made it clear that it is a front-burner issue,” Rep. José Serrano (D-N.Y.) said. “What you’ve heard from Reid is whether we do ‘this’ first or ‘that’ first, but he’s never said we’re not going to do that.”

Steven T. Dennis and Ellyn Ferguson contributed to this report.

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