Skip to content

John McCain’s Advice for the Next Immigration Battle

Memoir coming out next week, just as House members try to force floor debate

Sen. John McCain, right, has written advice for the lawmakers fighting the next immigration battle, highlighting his own with former Sen. Edward M. Kennedy. (Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Sen. John McCain, right, has written advice for the lawmakers fighting the next immigration battle, highlighting his own with former Sen. Edward M. Kennedy. (Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call file photo)

It’s fitting that Sen. John McCain’s memoir, likely his last, will arrive just as a bipartisan contingent of House lawmakers is seeking to work around Republican leaders’ objections to moving an immigration bill.

McCain, a longtime supporter of overhauling immigration laws, has some advice for newer colleagues searching for the path to legislative victory, even when their own leadership may not be on board.

The Arizona Republican recalls his crusade to rewrite campaign finance laws, which required a discharge petition to get the legislation to the  floor — much as the group in the House is now attempting to force a debate on immigration.

“I’ve come to the conclusion that to get an immigration bill through Congress and to the President’s desk will require one of three things to happen. Either Democrats retake the House, or enough practical, problem-solving House Republicans vote for a discharge petition as happened with McCain-Feingold, or Republican leaders break with recent precedent and bring a bill to the House floor for a vote that offends the Freedom Caucus,” he writes. “I’d vote for the latter, but it’s not in my power to arrange, more’s the pity.”

In “The Restless Wave,” his forthcoming book with collaborator and former aide Mark Salter, McCain shares his blueprint for legislative victory against all odds. 

Ryan: Gambit to Bring Immigration Bills to Floor Is ‘Big Mistake’

[jwp-video n=”1″]

“Give the impression that you’re going to make yourself as big a pain in the ass on the issue as you can until some accommodation to your view is made by negotiated compromise if possible or by a vote,” McCain writes. “Use your friendships to recruit as many influential members to your side as you can. Friends on both sides of the aisle will warn you about problems you might not be aware of, they’ll tell you who you can count on and who’s quietly working against you.”

The late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, the liberal Democrat from Massachusetts and one of McCain’s best friends, figured prominently in several of McCain’s quests — for the campaign finance overhaul legislation with former Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, as well as the various immigration debates.

Kennedy battled the brain cancer known as glioblastoma, just as McCain continues to do.

“A lot of momentum for an issue is illusory and based on excessive faith in the media’s sustained attention to it and the potency of its public support,” McCain writes. “Get it done before your opponents figure out that’s not the case.”

McCain spends a fair chunk of the book talking about his efforts to work with Democrats over the years, including the man who prevailed in the 2008 presidential contest, Barack Obama.

During the future president’s brief Senate tenure, McCain sought to work with him on a government ethics overhaul package. But that effort soured when Obama sent a letter opposing one of the measures, as McCain recalls it, thanks to then-Majority Leader Harry Reid.

McCain and Reid, both of whom represented Western states, were in some ways perfect Senate sparring partners, as McCain pointed out in a tweet earlier this week wishing the Nevada Democrat well after reports of surgery for pancreatic cancer.

“From one cantankerous senator to another, sending my prayers & best wishes to @SenatorReid as he recovers from a successful surgery,” McCain tweeted on Monday.

“Harry was a character, and partisan to the core. We had our moments, he and I. We both liked the fights and we liked to fight,” McCain writes in the book, which reaches shelves on May 22.

“But even though there were times in our long association when I was seething over something Harry did, I could never quite sustain a permanent dislike for the guy. He was scrappy as hell,” McCain writes. “Woe be to the opponent he felt didn’t respect him.”

McCain pulls no punches when it comes to talking about his adversaries within the Republican Party, particularly those promoting far more restrictive immigration policy.

Steve King and his immigrant-bashing cohort — and let’s be as clear about it as Mr. King has been, he’s not just opposed to illegal immigration, but also to the current rules and levels of legal immigration — understand none of this for the very simple reason that they don’t understand American exceptionalism,” McCain writes.

King, a Republican member of the House from Iowa, has long been among the staunchest adversaries of McCain’s immigration proposals.

McCain might be at his best not when recalling any particular political battle, but when praising the retreat he calls home in central Arizona.

He and his family settled in Cornville, and the senator spends a fair amount of time detailing their work to develop the property and an adjoining parcel that’s being made into a bird sanctuary.

“We’ve spent all the time we could here. We spent holidays and birthdays. We swam in the creek, fished the ponds, hiked the hills, and barbequed,” McCain writes. “We came here after elections to celebrate victories and for consolation after losses; the prescription for both included grilled ribs and a slowly sipped vodka on ice.”