WASHINGTON -- When Gaby Pacheco met with Sen. John McCain in 2007 to plead for help stopping the deportation of her family, she says she found a man who was sympathetic both personally and politically. McCain (R-Ariz.) was at the time a supporter of comprehensive immigration reform and the DREAM Act, which would allow some illegal immigrants who came to the United States as children to remain in the country legally.
McCain gave her a hug and promised to continue pushing for immigration reform in the face of stiff conservative opposition.
"He said 'Don't worry, everything is going to be OK. I'm going to fight for this.' " she recalled.
Pacheco had met McCain about six months earlier when she introduced him at an event in Miami, where he discussed his support for immigration reform. She later supported his presidential campaign, placing signs for his candidacy on her lawn and bumper stickers on her car, and encouraged others to vote for him.
"The general sentiment was that he was a hero in the community," she said. "I talked about the legacy that he was always had, which was to fight for justice, and that he was fighting for justice then as well."
That was a different McCain.
A few days before the Senate left for the Thanksgiving break, Pacheco met the new McCain when she tried to lobby him on the DREAM Act, the bill he'd once championed.
When Pacheco approached McCain, she said, he dismissed her and threatened to call the Capitol Police on her if she continued to follow him.
As he entered an elevator, the DREAM Act supporters told the senator that all they want is to serve their country.
"Go serve them then," McCain told them, according to Pacheco.
Brooke Buchanan, spokeswoman for McCain, said the protesters approached the senator, but said McCain did not say he would call the Capitol Police. She said she was not aware of him telling the protesters to "go serve them then."
The DREAM Act could come up for a cloture vote as early as this week, but faces tough opposition from Republicans -- including a few who, like McCain, previously supported the bill.
Some will likely vote against the DREAM Act citing timing. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) plans to bring up the bill for a cloture vote as early as Wednesday, but all 42 Republican senators have said they would filibuster any bills not related to tax cuts.
As the Senate struggles to come to agreement on the tax cuts and other issues, the DREAM Act could lose its few Republican supporters. Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), a co-sponsor of the DREAM Act, would vote against the bill if it came up this week, spokesman Mark Helmke said.
"You have to handle the spending bills, tax legislation and START first," Helmke said. "If we get those three things, he's willing to stay in and take up the DREAM Act."
Others Republican senators oppose the bill on its substance, even those who supported previous iterations of the bill. McCain now supports increased border enforcement and argues the border should be secured before the Senate can take up immigration issues such as the DREAM Act. Buchanan, his spokeswoman, attributed McCain's change in position to the increase in drug cartel violence in Mexico near the United States border.
Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) was an original sponsor of the bill in 2001. Earlier in the year, he seemed supportive of the DREAM Act when he was asked about the bill at a town hall meeting.
"With regard to the DREAM Act, a lot of these kids are brought in as infants. They don't even know that they're not citizens until they graduate from high school," Hatch said in July. "If they've lived good lives, if they've done good things, why would we penalize them and not let them at least go to school?"
But Hatch has since said the Senate should tackle border issues first, and opposes the bill this week because of the Republican pledge.
"With limited time in this lame-duck session of Congress, Sen. Hatch believes our top priority should be getting our economy back on track by preventing the massive tax hikes that are set to hit middle-class families and job creators on January 1," Antonia Ferrier, Hatch's spokeswoman, said in an email. "Furthermore, Democrats know this won't become law, but are moving forward with this show vote to curry favor with a political constituency."
Democrats made a few changes to the bill last week, both to win more votes and to lower the cost of the bill. A controversial provision to change a 1996 law that prohibited tuition benefits for illegal immigrants was stricken from the bill, and the upper limit for eligibility on the bill was capped at age 30. (Despite the 1996 law, 10 states allow undocumented students who meet other eligibility requirements to receive in-state tuition, and the California law was recently upheld by the state's Supreme Court.)
The bill now requires DREAM Act beneficiaries to wait 10 years instead of six to gain legal permanent residency. During that time, those eligible -- illegal immigrants who came to the United States when they were younger than 16 -- must complete two years of college or serve in the military for two years.
After obtaining legal status, DREAM Act beneficiaries would be required to wait three years to apply for citizenship under the most recent version of the bill. The original DREAM Act would have allowed beneficiaries to apply for citizenship immediately after becoming legal permanent residents.
The most recent version of the bill would decrease the deficit by $1.4 billion over the next 10 years, according to a Congressional Budget Office report released Thursday.
Although many Senate Democrats support the DREAM Act, a few moderates, such as Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) and Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) oppose the bill. Others, including some of the eight Democrats who voted against the DREAM Act in 2007, have not yet announced how they plan to vote.
Spokesmen for Republicans who are reportedly on the fence, such as Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kans.) and Maine Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, did not respond to calls for comment.
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