WASHINGTON - The eight senators meet in private several times a week, alternating between Sen. John McCain's and Sen. Charles Schumer's offices. They sit in arm chairs arranged in a circle and sip water or soft drinks as they debate temporary workers and border security. In a capital riven by partisanship and gridlock, they are determined to be the exception and actually get something done.
This is immigration reform's "Gang of Eight." With them lies the best hope in years for overhauling the nation's byzantine immigration laws — and they know it. That's partly why they are, by all accounts, working amazingly well together as a self-imposed deadline approaches for their sweeping legislation to be released. The progress is happening even though the group includes some of the Senate's most outsized personalities, failed and prospective presidential candidates, one lawmaker dogged by scandal and another facing a potential re-election challenge that could be complicated by his stance on immigration.
"I tell you what, this is one of the best experiences I've had. Everybody's serious, everybody's knowledgeable, they've been around the issue," said Sen. Lindsey Graham-R-S.C., who's up for re-election next year and facing a potential GOP primary challenge from the right. He said it's "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., who's battling allegations related to prostitution and his ties to one of his donors.
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. They're assiduous about avoiding leaks and tight-lipped on the details of how their talks are going.
"I'm guardedly optimistic," McCain almost invariably says when asked.
McCain and Schumer sometimes take the lead in the meetings but others speak up as issues arise that are of special importance to them. Menendez has made family reunification a focus; Durbin has championed the cause of illegal immigrants brought to the country as children. Graham and Schumer have jointly tried to help broker an agreement between business and labor over a program to bring future workers to the country, which several lawmakers said remains the toughest challenge.
The mood in the meetings varies between lighthearted and serious. McCain is given to ribbing Graham and others. Schumer appears to have developed a genuine fondness for both McCain and Graham. Mostly, there's 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.
"It's 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. They are struggling on the question of legal immigration and future workers, and are trading proposals with leaders of the AFL-CIO and Chamber of Commerce to try to get a deal.
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. They would aim for a vote in the Judiciary Committee soon thereafter, then consideration by the full Senate and from there, the House. Success is far from assured and the process could fail at any point. Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., has so far given the group the time and space to complete their work though he's also signaled his patience is not infinite and he could bring up more liberal immigration legislation drafted by President Barack Obama if the Gang of Eight doesn't produce a bill.
The group came together when Graham phoned Schumer the weekend after the November election. Obama's 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, let's 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 didn't offer much," Flake said.
Rubio had been shopping his own immigration proposals that dovetailed with what the senators were working on.
The Gang of Eight began working on drafting principles. They were forced to speed up their timetable when they learned Obama planned to announce his own proposals and they rolled out their blueprint at a packed news conference at the Capitol on Jan. 28. Since then they've had little to say publicly as they work toward releasing their bill, except to voice cautious optimism that this time they will finally succeed in solving a problem that has bedeviled Washington for decades.
"Everybody there wants to get it done and nobody's looking for political points or political advantage," Flake said. "Everybody's looking to get it done and that makes all the difference."