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On immigration reform, lawmakers racing to beat the 2014 clock

A Senate-approved immigration reform bill that one GOP lawmaker wrote off Sunday as "candy thrown down" to appease both sides will be center stage on Capitol Hill this week, as House members return from their Fourth of July recess to take a crack at the legislation before the politics of 2014 cast too large a cloud over an effort that President Obama had hoped would be a hallmark of his second term.

"What the Senate just passed was... a bunch of, you know, candy thrown down there - a bunch of assets thrown down there to gain votes - but without a methodical, smart border approach," Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, House Homeland Security Committee chairman, said on "Face the Nation." "We want a smart border. We also want a smart immigration plan, something that makes sense."

McCaul said House members will "take a look at" the comprehensive package that sailed through the Senate last month, but noted that ultimately the Republican-controlled chamber is "going to do our own thing" - which, in short, is tackling the legislation piecemeal, via regular order. He predicted under that process, by the end of 2013 or early 2014 lawmakers would be able to reach a conference committee, "where we do hash out the differences between the Senate and the House versions."

One tenet of the Senate bill McCaul said he takes particular issue with is a robust and pricey border security amendment he believes was "hatched at the last minute to get votes" from conservatives who were holding out for tighter border control: "I have some concerns about... throwing $46 billion at a problem without any plan, without any strategy, without any definition of operational control," he said.

"And, you know, there's an old saying, you know, if you fail to plan, you plan to fail."

A scheduled meeting Wednesday of the House GOP Conference to discuss immigration reform will hone in on the Senate's proposal to open a pathway to citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants currently living in the United States, and "applying Obamacare," McCaul said.

Members of Congress on both sides recognize any significant headway on an issue as massive as the biggest overhaul of immigration laws since the 1980s is a race against the clock for the 2014 midterms: "My concern of the political backdrop," McCaul said, "could be that the White House would like to see this fail in the House so that it can blame the House of Representatives for that and then try to take back the House of Representatives. And then, all bets are off on his agenda."

Rep. Becerra hopes immigration reform happens soon

Rep. Xavier Becerra, D-Calif., chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, later on "Face the Nation" insisted Democrats aren't trying to sabotage Republicans in 2014. But, he conceded, "once you start it in 2014, it's all politics - and so I hope that Republicans recognize that we've got to get this done quickly."

Becerra said "there's reason to feel optimistic if, indeed, Chairman McCaul's Republican colleagues will follow him. Where we probably disagree is on trying to do this in a piecemeal way, which won't fix the entire machine. You have to fix the entire machine."

Not so, argued Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, who abandoned the House's immigration-focused "group of 8" last month over disagreements about healthcare: "My concern with the Senate bill is that they put the legalization of 11 million people ahead of security," he said on NBC's "Meet the Press," complaining that under the Senate proposal, "the legalization happens first and the security happens second."

Either way, with House Republicans cornered between pressure from their party's senators and their more conservative right-wing base, it could be a while. A three-page memo Friday from House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., didn't bother to allocate an "immigration" section, instead grouping it in with "a few additional items at the end," according to the Wall Street Journal.

"The House may begin consideration of the border security measures that have been passed by the Homeland Security and Judiciary Committees and begin reviewing other immigration proposals," Cantor wrote, pointing out Wednesday's meeting of the Republican Conference.

McCain: Optimistic about immigration reform

But Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. - a member of the "gang of eight" lawmakers who drafted the Senate bill - on "Face the Nation" called himself an "eternal optimist" that the House GOP will find a way forward. He highlighted an endorsement Sunday from former President George W. Bush, who in an interview that aired on ABC's "This Week" threw his weight behind immigration reform, and predicted a comprehensive bill "has a chance to pass."

"We are not trying to dictate what the House of Representatives should do - and I believe that if they can come up with a bill, we would be more than eager to negotiate with them," McCain said. "A failure to act is de facto amnesty for 11 million people living in the shadows. I think wherever you are on that issue, there's agreement on that. So then shouldn't we sit down together and solve this issue? Not only for the good of the Republican Party, but for the good of the nation."

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