Sen. John McCain warned conservative Republicans Tuesday that they risk becoming irrelevant in future elections unless they embrace a comprehensive, bipartisan approach to overhauling the nation's immigration policy that includes "a path to citizenship" for illegal immigrants.
"We have to convince our Republican base that this is not amnesty. It is a tough path to citizenship," the Arizona Republican said on MSNBC's Morning Joe as he explained a proposed immigration reform bill hammered out by a bipartisan group of eight senators, including fellow Republicans Marco Rubio of Florida and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.
McCain said he believes there's a growing "realization" among many Republicans that immigration reform efforts could be a key to winning back Hispanic voters, who went overwhelmingly for President Barack Obama and other Democratic candidates in the 2012 elections.
"We can do the math and see the descent toward irrelevance, and see the failure to win elections," McCain said, noting that his party must recognize that "we can't have 11 million [illegal immigrants] living in the shadows forever."
The comments came as Republican tea party and conservative lawmakers criticized the bipartisan plan unveiled by McCain and Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer on Monday and continued to suggest that illegal immigrants should be treated like criminals.
Republican Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas voiced his opposition, saying that allowing illegal immigrants to become citizens would simply encourage more illegal immigration and cost American workers jobs in the long run.
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who was elected with strong tea party support, also called the bipartisan plan unfair to legal immigrants who have waited years to become citizens.
Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions also took to the Senate floor to criticize the bipartisan effort, saying no one should expect the Senate to "rubberstamp what a group has met and decided."
McCain shook off the criticism, noting that few of those who were voicing opposition so soon have actually produced their own immigration reform proposals. But he expressed confidence that the bipartisan effort will succeed because, "Republicans realize the realities of the 21st Century."
McCain led a similar bipartisan effort in 2007 that failed because of strong anti-immigrant feelings from within his own party. But he indicated that some of the more die-hard opponents back then have changed or relaxed their positions.
Schumer, who appeared with McCain on Morning Joe, also noted that more and more lawmakers now agree with polls that show most Americans, whether Democrats or Republicans, now favor a comprehensive reform plan that does provide some way for illegal immigrants to be become U.S. citizens.
"We do provide a path to citizenship but it's not a path that's easy. You have to work, you have to pay taxes, you're going to pay a fine, and there will be some admission of wrongdoing," Schumer said. "So it is not amnesty in any sense of the word. We're making that clear.
Schumer also noted that there would likely be some opposition on the Democratic side of the aisle as well from lawmakers who think the bipartisan bill is too tough on illegal immigrants.
But he said, "We can't let some strident voices who are on the other side, from either the far right or the far left, scuttle this effort."
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