WASHINGTON — Sen. John McCain said Wednesday he wants support from 80 senators for a new immigration reform proposal, but he might have to rely on significant help from House Democrats to send the bill to the president’s desk.

McCain and Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., spoke about their efforts to tackle immigration reform at a breakfast sponsored by Politico.

“We’ve got to maintain the center,” McCain said. “There will be people at both ends that will not ever agree and we have to understand that. We’re not seeking 100 votes but we are seeking 80 votes and I think we can achieve that.”

McCain and Schumer are part of a bipartisan group of eight senators who announced Monday an agreement on broad principles for reform. The details haven’t been hammered out yet — no legislation has been written so far — but Schumer said the consensus provides a path forward.

“The core principles we’ve agreed upon must stay intact,” Schumer said.

The so-called Gang of Eight also includes Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., Bob Menendez, D-N.J., Michael Bennet, D-Colo., Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Jeff Flake, R-Ariz. The group has laid out four main points for future reforms:

  • A “tough but fair” path to citizenship for illegal immigrants already in the U.S. that would go into effect along with renewed efforts to secure the border with Mexico.
  • Improvements in the legal immigration system that would help attract more skilled workers with advanced degrees.
  • A mandatory verification system for employers aimed at preventing businesses from hiring undocumented workers, and penalties for people who hire illegal workers.
  • Enforcing labor protections that would allow employers to hire immigrants for low-skilled jobs when Americans are unable or unwilling to fill those jobs.

President Barack Obama laid out his own set of principles Tuesday during a speech in a Las Vegas. He said he wouldn’t propose legislation of his own at this point but would encourage the Gang of Eight to continue its bipartisan effort.

However, the proposal from the White House included some points favored by liberal supporters of immigration reform that are not included the senators’ agreement. For instance, Obama said any reform bill should allow same-sex couples to obtain the same type of visa as heterosexual couples.

“Which is more important: LGBT or border security?” McCain snapped, interrupting Schumer mid-sentence. “If somebody views that as the most important aspect of comprehensive immigration reform then we just have a fundamental difference.”

Momentum for immigration reform grew after the election. Obama captured an overwhelming share of the Latino vote as he won reelection. The Latino population is steadily increasing in swing states such as Colorado and Nevada, and also in Republican states like Texas and Arizona.

Three days after the election, Schumer received an unexpected call from Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.

“The band is back,” Graham told Schumer. “Let’s do immigration.”

Graham, Schumer and McCain worked together in 2007 on a similar immigration reform plan that attracted support from both sides of the aisle. A bipartisan group of 12 senators even consulted with then-President George W. Bush, but the bill eventually stalled.

McCain became the Republican nominee for president one year later and moved to the right on the controversial issue, rarely mentioning his past support for a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants. He took an even more conservative tack in 2010 while fending off a primary challenger in his bid for a fifth Senate term in Arizona.

“I’ve always been for it but I’ve been concerned about border security,” McCain said in response to a question about his evolving positions on immigration reform.

The Gang of Eight met Tuesday night and discussed parameters for measuring when the border with Mexico can be seen as secure, Schumer said.

The senators plan to meet every Tuesday until a bill is written, Schumer said. Their staffs are supposed to hash out details on Wednesdays with the entire group reconvening on Thursdays to review progress.

The group hopes to draft a bill by March and hold a vote in the Senate by late spring or early summer.