At labor event, McCain keeps pressure on GOP for comprehensive immigration reform

Appearing at the headquarters of a labor union typically aligned with Democrats, Republican Sen. John McCain on Tuesday once again urged his party’s House members to pass an immigration reform measure that contains a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.

The onetime GOP presidential nominee recently has been a high-profile negotiator with Democrats and the White House on issues from immigration to the budget, calling for moderation from both sides as the parties wrangle over health care, the debt ceiling and other issues. Once a fierce critic of the president, McCain’s recent moves represent a return to the kind of across-the-aisle deal-making that once earned him the infamous “maverick” moniker.

Related: McCain the dealmaker returns

McCain, who appeared at the AFL-CIO-sponsored forum alongside leading House immigration proponent Rep. Xavier Becerra, D-Calif., said he’s optimistic that his Republican colleagues will ultimately be receptive to arguments about the economic and humanitarian problems caused by the current system, pointing to the upcoming congressional recess as a crucial time to push for action on the legislation.

“There are so many aspects of this that appeal to our Judeo-Christian principles that I think we have a good chance of convincing our fellow members of the House of Representatives,” McCain said.

He urged proponents of the reform effort to push lawmakers during the August recess but warned about the tenor of the ongoing back-and-forth between immigration backers and stalwart foes like Rep. Steve King, who has come under fire for suggesting that most young undocumented immigrants are involved in the drug trade.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. makes brief remarks at a lunch briefing for congressional staff on behalf of the Dollar Coin Alliance on July 22, 2013, on Capitol Hill in Washington. J. Scott Applewhite / AP file photo

“Please treat your opponents, those who disagree, treat them with respect,” he said, after emotionally deriding King’s “despicable” remarks. “We want to keep the high ground in this debate.”

McCain was one of the Gang of Eight that drafted sweeping immigration legislation that passed the Senate last month a 68-32 vote.

The Arizona senator said Tuesday that the Senate bill’s huge increases in border security resources were unnecessary from a practical perspective but politically necessary to win more Republican support.

“I’ll give you a little straight talk,” he said. “We don’t need 20,000 additional border patrol agents, but what we do need is the use of technology that has been developed so we can survey the border more effectively.”

Referencing the Hoeven-Corker amendment that included a huge boost in border patrol personnel, he said that he supported the measure “so that friends of mine would be comfortable that we were securing the border, but the real securing of the border is with technology as opposed to individuals.”

The Senate-passed legislation is unlikely to get a vote in the GOP-led House, which is working on smaller measures to address border security and visa program fixes.

But Becerra, one of seven bipartisan members working on comprehensive immigration legislation in the House, said he believes the Senate-passed bill would garner enough votes for passage in the House if Speaker John Boehner allowed the measure to come up for a vote in the GOP-dominated chamber.

In recent months, McCain has emerged as a critical dealmaker on Capitol Hill. Outside of the immigration issue, he has met with the president to discuss how to avoid gridlock on the upcoming fight over the federal budget, worked with Democrats on resolving a deadlock on Obama appointees in the Senate and has publicly taken on some in his own party over the tone of debates in Washington.