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How the immigration bill explains the Senate, in 10 anecdotes

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A sweeping immigration bill months in the making is in the midst of its most crucial test yet, with the full Senate set to launch its second full week of debate over the matter and Majority Leader promising a vote on final passage by the July 4 recess.

In a terrific story out Monday (which you can read here) the New Yorker's Ryan Lizza takes a look at the genesis of the bill, which was crafted by a bipartisan "Gang of Eight" senators. Lizza looks at the unlikely alliances, near-breaking points, and complex web of interests that led to the present debate. It's about the immigration bill but it's also a window into how -- and why -- things do and don't get done in Washington.

Below, we take a look at the 10 most notable passages from Lizza's "Getting To Maybe."

1. Schumer and McCain's unlikely alliance: Throughout their Senate careers, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) haven't been pals. But they came together to form the gang, shoring up their relationship as they worked to blunt dramatic changes to the Senate's filibuster rules. There wouldn't be a gang in its current form had the two not gotten together on filibuster reform.

McCain’s Democratic partner in pushing immigration reform this year is Senator Charles Schumer, of New York. Although they generally agree on immigration, it was not an obvious pairing. Schumer, an aggressive pol from Brooklyn who won his first political campaign thirty-eight years ago, told me recently, in his office in Manhattan, “I didn’t get along with McCain. We didn’t know each other very well. We’ve had some fights on the floor. He once made a pejorative comment about Long Island and I blasted it and he got mad at that.”
The relationship thawed as McCain and Schumer found themselves working together as part of the group that kept Reid from changing the filibuster rules. "McCain and I sat next to each other every morning at eight o’clock and went over things,” Schumer said. The meetings took place over "bad D.C. danish." McCain, Schumer said, "came over to me at the end. He said, ‘You know? You’re a much different person than I thought you were.'" McCain agreed that the meetings built trust between him and Schumer. "The reason why I enjoyed working with Ted Kennedy is because Ted was always good to his word," he said. "And so is Chuck."

2. Obama wasn't initially happy to let gang steer the effort: According to Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), President Obama was not initially happy with letting the gang take the lead on the reform effort. He came around, though, letting the eight senators take control as he recognized the risk of alienating Republicans with too big a footprint. Still, a senior White House official told Lizza: “No decisions are being made without talking to us about it."

Then Menendez spoke up, asking the President not to present his full plan in Las Vegas—and, moreover, to say as little as possible about the issue. “We appreciate your leadership and we’re going to need your leadership at certain points,” he told Obama. “But right now, if you put out your bill, they”—Republicans—“will feel like they’re being cornered.” Obama was taken aback. “He basically said, ‘After you guys pushed me so hard in not so subtle tones, being critical at times about lacking leadership, now you’re asking me to hold off?’ And so we took the browbeating for a little while and then I went back and said, ‘I understand why you’re upset and how you might feel this way.’ ”

3. McConnell wanted Cornyn, Grassley to join the gang: McCain ignored Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's suggestion that conservative Sens. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) join the group. McCain's decision not to court the reform skeptics was an early signal that the group wanted like-minded colleagues who could rally around some key principles.

The Republican group was trickier to assemble. Mitch McConnell, the Senate Minority Leader, instructed McCain to include John Cornyn, of Texas, and Chuck Grassley, of Iowa, two conservatives who are skeptical of comprehensive reform. McCain thought the directive suggested that McConnell was trying to stifle the initiative. McCain ignored him and excluded Grassley and Cornyn from the group.

4. Durbin courted Rubio in the gym: The gang wanted Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) on board, and it was liberal Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois who reached out to Rubio in the Senate gym. These days, Rubio is now fending off allegations from the political right that he is just doing the bidding of the liberals in the gang:

Everyone agreed that Rubio, who is the son of Cuban immigrants, would bring extra wattage to the group, but there was some skepticism about his intentions. Durbin said, “They questioned whether or not, with his credentials, he would be part of an effort that would lead to a path to citizenship. They knew he was obviously strong on border security.” McCain was especially resistant. He would now have to compete for leadership on the Republican side with the young upstart. But Durbin, who had discussed immigration policy with Rubio when Rubio was writing his own DREAM Act, shuttled between conversations with the Gang in Senate offices and conversations with Rubio in the gym.

5. The McCain-Rubio relationship is not all roses. McCain would go to Schumer, Lizza writes, when he was upset about something Rubio was doing. And McCain's quote on Rubio doesn't exactly amount to glowing praise:

McCain was the only one of the Gang to offer qualified support. “I think the work he’s done with conservative radio has been really good. From time to time, his inexperience here shows up. But it’s not a huge deal. Once in a while, you read, ‘Rubio’s gonna do this, or do that!’ Wait a minute, Marco! Let’s all be together.” As for the substance, “Policy- wise, he’s been good, O.K.? But I wouldn’t say any different than the rest of us.”

6. "There are American workers who, for lack of a better term, can’t cut it." That quote, attributed to an anonymous Rubio aide, has irked some on the right. And Rubio's spokesman said his office "strongly objected to the magazine using the background quotes like they did because they misrepresented the Senator's position."

Fresco and Gonzalez helped to unlock the deal with labor and the Chamber of Commerce. The two biggest sticking points were wages for foreign workers (the unions wanted them to be higher) and the objections of the Building and Construction Trades union, which argues that plenty of Americans are looking for this kind of work. Rubio sided with the Chamber against the construction workers. “There are American workers who, for lack of a better term, can’t cut it,” a Rubio aide told me. “There shouldn’t be a presumption that every American worker is a star performer. There are people who just can’t get it, can’t do it, don’t want to do it. And so you can’t obviously discuss that publicly.” In the end, the wage issue was settled to the A.F.L.-C.I.O.’s satisfaction, and the Building and Construction Trades union won a cap on the number of visas for foreign construction workers.

7. From "undocumented" to "illegal." The current reform effort is in large part guided by where things went wrong in 2007. Case in point: Schumer's decision to say "illegal immigrants" over "undocumented workers."

Schumer studied Kennedy’s 2007 negotiations, and he thought he understood one reason that the bill failed. “I love Ted Kennedy,” Schumer said. “He was my mentor and idol, but people got the feeling he wasn’t tough on future waves of illegal immigration.” Schumer said that Democrats are too cautious in their rhetoric. “When Ted Kennedy would say ‘undocumented workers,’ basic America—not the liberal side, but Middle America and conservatives—would say, ‘He really doesn’t think they’re illegal.’ I made a decision: I would have to keep saying ‘illegal immigrants.’”

8. Border security provision is "just a goal." A Schumer aide is quoted as calling the border security provision in the bill "just a goal," something which is likely to inflame existing demands from Republicans that the bill shore up its security requirements.

The Gang finally agreed that, if the government could not successfully apprehend ninety per cent of people who crossed illegally along the border’s most porous sections, a special border commission would be created. As many conservatives now point out, the policy is not a real trigger, or at least is not one that would prevent the pathway to citizenship from being implemented, as many conservatives demand. “It’s just a goal,” a Schumer aide admitted. “Because even if we don’t achieve it, and the border commission comes into existence, it doesn’t delay the path to citizenship.”

9. Leahy angered Schumer: Here's a reminder that things can get heated even among colleagues of the same party working toward the same goal. Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) angered Schumer when he dragged out a decision over whether to introduce an gay rights amendment. Only after Schumer and other Democrats announced they would not support the amendment did Leahy announce he would not submit it for a vote. Schumer was not pleased he had to go on the record against with a comment putting him at odds with gay rights activists.

When Leahy still didn’t budge, Schumer and Durbin, and several Democrats on the Judiciary Committee, announced that they would have to vote against the amendment. After they were finished, Leahy announced that he wouldn’t put the amendment up for a vote, thus saving the bill. Schumer was furious. Leahy had dragged out the drama for weeks and forced him to publicly declare that he would vote against an issue dear to the gay-rights community.

10. Just like .. marriage? Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) has been one of Obama's most outspoken critics when it comes to last year's deadly attack in Benghazi, Libya. But that hasn't stopped him from working with the president on immigration.

Graham explained his relationship with Obama by saying, “I’m not married, but I think marriages work this way. That’s the way life is. You kick their ass one day and you’ll work with them the next. If you can’t do two things at once, don’t get into politics.