Will Immigration Reform Work This Time?

The Senate's Gang of Eight hails a "major breakthrough" on a comprehensive bill, but they have a long way to go.

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New American citizens take photos following a naturalization ceremony at the district office of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in Newark, N.J., on Jan. 28, 2013.

Even in these days of 10% approval ratings, the triumphal press conference is a Capitol Hill fixture. But this one felt a little different. The bipartisan group of Senators who unveiled their proposal for comprehensive immigration reform on Monday were chummy beyond the usual standards of forced comity, referring to one another as the “glue” or the “force” behind the deal. Democrat Chuck Schumer lauded Republicans for their courage. Republican John McCain, who has been a stalwart opponent of Barack Obama ever since losing the White House in 2008, said the deal the Senators had struck would help the President. How long has it been since lawmakers went before the cameras to announce a bipartisan deal — without the hunted look of hostage victims?

Perhaps since they launched a similar bid to overhaul the U.S. immigration system. Those efforts, from 2005 to 2007, and again in 2009 and 2010, were led by many of the same Senators spearheading the push that was launched on Monday. The bills produced in those doomed efforts look eerily similar to the new framework released by the Senate’s so-called Gang of Eight. Schumer touted the outline as a “major breakthrough,” and through the prism of Washington’s polarized politics, it was. It also carried a whiff of Groundhog Day.

(MORE: Why States Shouldn’t Control Immigration)

The Senators acknowledged their recent history of failed attempts to thread comprehensive immigration reform through the narrow pathways of a divided Congress. “Senators have stood here before trumpeting similar proposals, but we believe this will be the year Congress finally gets it done,” Schumer said. The 2012 election results provide some cause for optimism. Obama trounced Mitt Romney among Hispanics, 71% to 27%, which helped lift him to re-election. That drubbing came after a primary season that saw Republican candidates toss around terms like “self-deportation” and “anchor babies,” which alienated the fastest-growing demographic group in the U.S. Polls show that all segments of the electorate, including independents and Republicans, favor an immigration fix that provides a pathway to citizenship while tightening security along the U.S. border. Republicans have been slow to embrace policy change in the wake of their November defeat, but immigration reform is an exception born of exigency.

“First of all, Americans support it in poll after poll,” said Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey, one of four Democrats in the bipartisan group. “Secondly, Latino voters expect it. Third, Democrats want it. And fourth, Republicans need it.”

The blueprint outlined by the Gang of Eight — which also includes Democrats Dick Durbin of Illinois and Michael Bennet of Colorado as well as Republicans Marco Rubio of Florida, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Jeff Flake of Arizona — contains four basic pillars. It would create a “tough but fair” path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants while beefing up border security. It would streamline the legal immigration system and create incentives to lure sought-after tech and science whizzes. It would establish a mechanism for employers to check the immigration status of potential hires. And it would try to create ways for employers — particularly in the agricultural sector — to find low-wage undocumented workers when Americans are not available.

(MORE: Not Legal, Not Leaving)

This outline is “not much different,” McCain conceded on Sunday, from the legislation he developed in concert with the late Ted Kennedy, which was thwarted in 2007 despite bipartisan backing and the strong support of President George W. Bush. Why would it meet a different fate now? “Elections,” McCain said. “The Republican Party is losing the support of our Hispanic citizens.” The Arizona Senator passed on a brief statement from his friend Graham, which read, in part, “I hope the third time is the charm.”

Republicans who view immigration reform as key to the party’s future have nursed suspicions that Democrats would undermine the bipartisan effort to preserve their edge with Latino voters. On Monday, the White House blessed the group’s work, praising its efforts while also claiming credit for the achievement. “This is a big deal,” said press secretary Jay Carney. “I think it’s important, before we let the moment pass, to acknowledge that the progress we’re seeing embodied in the principles put forward by this bipartisan group is happening for a reason. And I think it’s happening because a consensus is developing in the country, a bipartisan consensus. And it’s happening because the President has demonstrated significant leadership on this issue.” A key question now is how quickly Senate Democrats will move on the broad proposal.

The timing of the group’s presentation is also significant. By unveiling their blueprint on Monday, lawmakers laid down a marker one day before Obama outlines his own principles during a visit to Nevada. While Carney said the group’s priorities “mirror” the President’s, Obama may opt for a supporting role, even though he has publicly identified immigration reform as one of the goals of his second term. To many Republicans, the President’s imprimatur is like the grim reaper’s touch.

(MORE: Why Undocumented Workers Are Good for the Economy)

Already, anti-immigration groups are assailing the proposal as “amnesty,” a loaded word invoked on Monday by House Republican Lamar Smith. It was a glimpse of what the Senate group will face as it tries to turn a skeletal document into a bill. They will need to act fast if they hope to hash out legislative language in committee by March, with the goal of passing a bill by late spring or early summer. Despite Monday’s rare bipartisan bonhomie, the Gang of Eight will have to navigate a raft of competing interests: House Republicans worried about primary challenges, a tug of war between business and labor, Hispanics unsatisfied by the arduous and murky path to citizenship. Then there are the looming brawls over the budget and gun control, which could poison whatever cross-aisle goodwill exists. “We’ve been down this road before,” Durbin admitted. It didn’t end well in the past.

Bipartisan Group Of Senators Announce Major Agreement On Immigration Reform

Alex Wong / Getty Images

From left, Senators John McCain, Chuck Schumer, Marco Rubio, Bob Menendez and Dick Durbin listen during a news conference on comprehensive immigration reform on Capitol Hill in Washington on Jan. 28, 2013.