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How a discordant Senate band got back together on immigration

WASHINGTON — On the Saturday morning after 7 in 10 Latino voters helped return President Barack Obama to the White House and deliver a crushing defeat to Mitt Romney, Charles E. Schumer, the Democratic senator from New York, scanned his daily list of phone messages and saw that Lindsey Graham, the Republican senator from South Carolina, had called.

Schumer dialed his number. “I saw your name on my call list, and my heart skipped a beat,” he said.

“We’re getting the band back together,” Graham replied. “Let’s do immigration.”

Graham sounded buoyant, Schumer said, recalling the conversation. And Graham had more news: “McCain wants in.”

Schumer said his “heart went pitter-patter” when he heard Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican, wanted to help broker a deal. “That meant we could get something done,” he said.

Schumer and Graham had been through a lot together on immigration. They had worked with McCain on comprehensive bills in 2006 and 2007 that failed. But more recently, a push to craft another bill in 2010 never saw light, in part because McCain, who faced a tense primary challenge, spurned it.

But now, another election made it seem possible again.

What unfolded over the next 12 weeks shows just how much the political landscape has shifted on immigration, but it also reveals that significant hurdles remain. The account of how the group reached this point was related in interviews with three senators involved in the talks and more than a dozen congressional and White House aides, as well as public comments made by senators.

Republican senators, stung by the party’s dismal performance with Latino voters, pushed to accelerate the work. But as the proposal solidified, one conservative senator in the group decided he could not support it, suggesting how difficult it would be to draft a plan that appealed to the right. Democrats, meanwhile, negotiated a delicate dance — trying to deliver Obama’s top legislative priority for his second term while keeping him at a distance so as not to scare away GOP fence-sitters.

The senators created a five-page blueprint, but they must still write a bill hundreds of pages long filled with details that will be intensely scrutinized by lawmakers and activists on the left and the right.

Schumer and Graham spoke to senators who might be interested and arranged to meet on Dec. 4 in a stately ceremonial room in the Capitol with a dramatic view of the Washington Monument.

Schumer came with Democratic Sens. Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Richard J. Durbin of Illinois. Graham and McCain brought fellow Republican Sen. Mike Lee of Utah.

The group set an ambitious goal: to write a bill that could win support from the left-leaning Congressional Hispanic Caucus plus enough Republicans to pass the Senate by a wide margin.

It was clear to the senators that one voice could prove crucial to their hope to sell a plan to conservatives: Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican and Cuban-American with conservative credentials, who could become a champion untainted by past scars over immigration.

Soon after that meeting, Durbin was in the Senate gym and spotted Rubio pedaling a stationary bike.

The two were consistently among the earliest to arrive, often showing up at 5:30 a.m., and had become friendly. Both see immigration as a humanitarian issue. Durbin is a descendant of Irish and Eastern European immigrants; Rubio’s parents left Cuba for a better life in Florida in 1956.

“Marco, you got to be there,” Durbin said. “I want you there because of your position in the party.”

There was a catch: Rubio, like all senators in the group, had to agree that any bill would create a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants and would emphasize family unification.

“Are you willing to accept these two things?” Durbin asked.

“Yes,” Rubio said. “Of course, I want to talk about how it’s done.”

Rubio had his own conditions: to ramp up border security first and make sure illegal immigrants go to the back of the line when applying for legal permanent residency, among other things.

Durbin called Schumer: Rubio was in.

“I have gotten more done in the Senate gym than almost any room in the Capitol complex,” said Durbin, who described the encounter while in his Capitol office, where he keeps a copy of his Lithuanian mother’s naturalization paper framed behind glass with the receipt for the fee she paid: $2.50.

As Rubio came on board, Lee stepped aside. He didn’t agree with the emerging consensus on the pathway to legal status and the proposal to give agricultural workers a faster path to citizenship.

Rubio attended the second meeting on Dec. 12. The session was especially productive, as the senators homed in on a set of shared principles. Staff members were asked to clear up some technical questions.

When the senators made plans to meet in the days ahead, McCain objected.

“Why can’t we meet tomorrow?” McCain said. “Have the staff do it tonight.”

It was a sign not only of eagerness among the Republicans to reach a deal, but also of the awareness that the political window opened by the election could slam shut.

“We all know we need to address this issue,” McCain said. He believed that November clearly demonstrated that immigration reform was important to Latino voters and, if the GOP continued to thwart it, red states with growing Latino populations, including Arizona, would turn blue.

“Very few things get your attention as elections do,” McCain said.

The senators met six times. At the sixth meeting, they agreed to a list of accepted principles that they would make public before their self-imposed Feb. 1 deadline. But the next day, Thursday, Jan. 24, news leaked that Obama would deliver a major speech on immigration on Jan. 29.

The Republican senators worried that Obama would stake out territory that would alienate their party.

Neither Democrats nor Republicans in the group had much, if any, contact with the administration. The White House was skeptical that the senators could reach accord, they believed, and the group did not know whether the president was preparing to unveil his own proposal.

The next day, Friday, members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus met with Obama at the White House. They warned that he could jeopardize GOP support for negotiations under way in the House and Senate.

Obama was noncommittal, congressional and White House aides said.

The Senate staff raced through the weekend to write up the principles that the six senators had agreed on. Two more senators — a Republican and a Democrat — came on board. And the group shifted gears, planning to unveil the package on Monday, the day before the president’s speech.

On Sunday night, Durbin was at a birthday party in Springfield, Ill. He’d had a glass of wine and was thankful he hadn’t had more after he found out he needed to join a conference call that was being set up with Schumer and the president.

Durbin and Schumer, who was in New York, told Obama they had decided to announce their proposals on Monday and were optimistic they could turn them into legislation by March.

“I don’t care that you go first; it doesn’t bother me,” Obama told the senators, as Durbin recalled the conversation. “I’m going to come out with my principles. And I’m also going to put the heat on you to do something. I don’t want this to drag on. I want you to do something.”

Obama told the senators he had a bill ready to send to Congress, but he assured them he would stand down. But if they didn’t act, he promised, he would send his bill to Congress.

Good, the senators agreed; political pressure would help.

On Tuesday evening, after Obama gave his speech at a high school in Las Vegas, the senators met again, arrayed on couches and overstuffed chairs in McCain’s office suite.

McCain came in, in a cheerful mood.

“Well, that wasn’t so bad,” the Arizona senator said.

Rubio also had upbeat news. He had been on Rush Limbaugh’s show, and the influential conservative host had told him what he was doing was “admirable and noteworthy.”

Then, the senators turned to the details, which could determine whether their work writes another chapter in the nation’s fitful attempts to deal with its millions of illegal immigrants — or closes the book.

Michael A. Memoli in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.