July 30 (Bloomberg) -- Senator John McCain said business and religious groups need to press reluctant House Republicans next month to back a revision of U.S. immigration law, saying he was “not happy with the effort so far.”
“August will be an important month,” McCain said yesterday. “If we can galvanize our broad coalition to make this the highest priority and that they start talking to their elected representatives, if we can do that, then I think you may see a favorable outcome.”
McCain, one of the authors of the Senate’s bipartisan immigration plan, said he is “guardedly optimistic” a measure can be enacted this year. The Arizona Republican spoke at a lunch sponsored by Bloomberg Government.
The Senate, with the support of 14 Republicans and all of the chamber’s Democrats, on June 27 passed the most significant rewrite of immigration law in a generation. The measure, which has encountered broad opposition from House Republicans, would create a path to citizenship for about 11 million undocumented immigrants now in the U.S. while directing $46.3 billion toward securing the U.S. border with Mexico.
McCain, 76, said he plans to spend time over Congress’s recess, scheduled to start Aug. 2, visiting House Republican districts in Arizona to make the case for a comprehensive immigration bill. He said he will encourage evangelical groups, Catholic groups and business organizations to wage a campaign.
“We have the most diverse and important coalition supporting this legislation that I’ve ever seen on any piece of legislation,” he said.
McCain said pressure from business and religious groups was particularly important in persuading House Republicans to back a comprehensive bill because “so many Republicans come from districts that have very small Hispanic populations.”
“Therefore it doesn’t lend the same pressures you might imagine,” he said. “They’re all supposed to be pro-business people, small and large, these Republicans are. Many of them are supported strongly by evangelicals and church people.”
House Speaker John Boehner has said he wants the House to revise immigration laws. Boehner, an Ohio Republican, has said the Senate bill’s border security provisions -- which represent the largest U.S. investment in border security -- aren’t adequate, and that he prefers a piecemeal approach to the issue.
McCain said he was nonetheless encouraged that Boehner left open the possibility of passing a bill with Democratic support. He said many House Republicans, in private discussions, say enacting an immigration measure will put the party “on a level playing field where we can compete for Hispanic votes.”
They understand that the party “will never win a national election unless we get a larger proportion of the Hispanic vote than we have in the last two elections,” the senator said.
Last year, President Barack Obama won 71 percent of the Hispanic votes cast for president.
McCain, who earlier this month brokered a deal on nominations that averted a Senate rules crisis, said he and other Republican senators would meet with White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough to discuss the potential for a bipartisan compromise on a range of issues, including presidential nominees and the federal budget.
With funds for government operations set to expire Sept. 30, McCain said it was important to avoid a federal government shutdown. Part of the discussions are focusing on whether funding should be linked to revisiting automatic spending cuts that started in March and raising the debt limit, he said.
McCain, formerly the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the Defense Department must have “complete flexibility” in any deal to avoid additional spending cuts. At the same time, he said cost overruns at the Pentagon were “disgraceful.”
McCain said the government should cancel all “cost-plus contracts” that allow contractors to be reimbursed for all costs, including overruns. He said contractors should produce weapons systems within an allocated budget.
He singled out the F-35 fighter jet made by Lockheed Martin Corp. of Bethesda, Maryland, calling it an unproven trillion-dollar weapons system. He also assailed $2 billion in overruns on the first of three planned Ford-class aircraft carriers made in Newport News, Virginia, by Huntington Ingalls Industries Inc.
Also likely to come before the Senate this year is a nominee to replace Ben S. Bernanke as Federal Reserve chairman. McCain said he had no preference between former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers and Fed Vice Chairman Janet Yellen, seen as the leading candidates.
In an interview yesterday with Bloomberg Television, McCain said he was disappointed with Bernanke’s leadership at the Fed.
“It’s been a very uneven and unequal recovery,” he said. “Wall Street is doing fine. The stock market’s up. The major financial institutions are making record profits while still the unemployment stagnates at 7.6 percent with millions that have given up. And so I don’t give Mr. Bernanke very high marks.”
Already, a partisan fight is brewing over one of Obama’s nominees. McCain said the nomination of Representative Mel Watt to oversee mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac is “problematic.”
“There is strong evidence that he is not qualified,” McCain said. “I’ve been talking to a lot of the Republican senators and we’ll see what happens in the next three or four days, but of all the nominations that is the one that is problematic.”
Watt, a North Carolina Democrat, was selected by Obama to head the Federal Housing Finance Agency. Republicans have argued that as a politician Watt isn’t qualified for a job that is better suited for a technocrat.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has said the Senate may vote as soon as this week on Watt’s nomination.
Watt would need support from at least six Republicans to gain the 60 votes needed for confirmation if he’s backed by all 54 lawmakers who caucus with the Democrats in the 100-member body. Senator Richard Burr of North Carolina is the only Republican who has endorsed him so far.
McCain has clashed with the White House over Syria policy, arguing that the U.S. should intervene to halt the slaughter of Syrians in a civil war whose death toll has risen to 100,000 in two years.
The U.S. could establish a no-fly zone “at very little cost” by destroying Syrian runways and aircraft, he said.
McCain criticized the Obama administration’s dealings with Russian President Vladimir Putin, whom he described as a “KGB colonel who has dreams of the old Russian empire” and returning to Russia’s former stature as a superpower by thwarting U.S. foreign policy goals.
“It’s time for a little realism,” McCain said. “We pushed the reset button all the way back to 1955,” he added, suggesting that U.S.-Russian relations are at their worst since the Cold War.
It’s an “exercise in futility” for the U.S. to count on Russia’s cooperation on foreign policy challenges including Iran’s nuclear program and Syria’s civil war, he said.
One way to show Putin that the U.S. won’t tolerate Russia working at cross purposes, McCain said, would be for the U.S. to revive plans for a European missile defense shield, a project that Obama dialed back amid efforts to smooth relations with Russia.
Asked about the White House decision to avoid making a ruling on whether the ouster of the elected government in Egypt this month should be considered a coup, McCain said there is no other conclusion to draw. Calling it a coup would have required the U.S. to cease military aid to Egypt.
“It is a coup and anybody who says it isn’t, isn’t practicing intellectual honesty,” McCain said. In any case, he said, the U.S. is wrong to think it wields much leverage with approximately $1.5 billion in aid it gives Egypt annually because other countries, including Qatar, give far more.
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