I just completed a conference call with John McCain which meant to cover a wide range of topics -- but in the end focused almost entirely on immigration. Senator McCain clearly understood that the press reports of his sharp exchange with Senator Jon Cornyn had nicked his momentum somewhat, and he insisted that the exchange was overblown. He joked on a couple of occasions that he wished someone had YouTubed it so that everyone could see that it meant little, if anything.
McCain knows that this bill will be a tough sell on both sides of the aisle, but more so on his own. He says that he was "a bit disappointed" in the responses of GOP politicians to the compromise. He feels it addresses all of the party's key issues: it secures the borders, it provides triggers that keeps other aspects of normalization from coming into force before that, and it provides penalties for those illegal immigrants already in the country. He pointed out that a $5000 fine is not small potatoes for someone earning $15,000 a year.
Several bloggers questioned him on the specifics of the bill. I asked about the fence; some confusion had arisen as to whether the fencing in this bill came in addition to last year, or just reiterated last year's authorization. McCain confirmed that it did not add any new fencing over last year's bill, but said that electronic surveillance of the rural frontiers would work better than fencing, which would require far more foot patrols.
I also asked about the Bush administration's request to remove liability for previous unpaid income taxes, as reported in the Boston Globe this weekend. McCain said that he was unaware of it, and that he would oppose that change. He feels that illegals should account for all of their violations of the law if they want to achieve a legal status in the US. He also called that change "throwing fuel on the fire" and not at all helpful.
McCain also addressed the "immediate legalization" issue arising from the temporary ID cards issued on Day 1. He called it a probationary status, and a temporary status at that. Anyone who signs up for that must either progress to a Z-visa (for those choosing to reside in the US) or a Y-visa (for those who want to participate in the guest worker program). The temp status allows us to start identifying as many people as possible as soon as possible in order to benefit our national-security concerns -- but they cannot just remain in that limbo for long after the 18 months of border-security triggers come into play.
He also wanted to caution the GOP about recognizing the humanity of the issue. We could lose the Hispanic vote for a generation, despite their being a natural constituency of the Republicans due to their affinity to free-market principles and conservative social values.
A few other issues came up, notably the AMRAP armor upgrades for personnel carriers in Iraq. Here are my raw notes on those issues:
• AMRAP program – in the right place, or too much money too soon? It saves lives, and money should not be the main consideration. It works and we should get it deployed ASAP. He praised the DoD for its quick development and turnaround.
• Ron Paul, 9/11 was blowback, and prior investigations should be considered “cover-ups”. What can be done to prevent the Truther virus? He’s glad that people have the freedom to make these arguments, but it hurts when assumably credible people like Paul engage in conspiracy theories.
• Fred Kagan wrote that success should be calculated by how many of the tribal leaders switch to our side in Anbar and Diyala. McCain worries a great deal about the Maliki government. They have to act conclusively, and taking two months off doesn’t help. We need to get the fifth brigade into action in Baghdad, and we need patience and sophistication. Long, hard, and tough. Still believes this is the best strategy.
UPDATE: Welcome, Instapundit readers! I should have realized this would get the most attention:
Mitt Romney has been trying to make quite a bit of political hay out of the compromise immigration bill — he sees it as one of John McCain's key weaknesses as relates to the Republican base and a great way to differentiate himself as the One True Conservative in the race (at least until Fred Thompson jumps in).
Well, today, on a conference call with bloggers, Mr. McCain fired back at the former Massachusetts governor, who has (of course) held varying positions on immigration over the years.
"Maybe I should wait a couple weeks and see if it changes," Mr. McCain said of Mr. Romney's position on immigration this week. "Maybe he can get out his small varmint gun and drive those Guatemalans off his yard."
Hugh Hewitt calls it a "personal attack," but it points out that Romney has some credibility issues on this topic. Romney supported the McCain-Kennedy bill in its last incarnation, and in the debate said he's support normalization after border-security triggers were met, but now wants to become the leading conservative crusader against it. I'd say that McCain has a right to be irritated with Romney's posturing at this point, even if he should have rethought this quip. After all, Romney had no control over his contractor's decision to hire illegals, and in that sense Hugh is absolutely correct.