BLITZER: And joining us now from Capitol Hill, a key senator in that group that announced today's bipartisan plan for comprehensive immigration reform.
Republican Senator John McCain is joining us.
Senator McCain, thanks very much for coming in.
MCCAIN: Thank you.
BLITZER: There already are some critics, including Republican critics, Lamar Alexander -- Lamar Smith, I should say, Lamar Smith, Republican of Texas.
He issued this statement. He said: "When you legalize those who are in the country illegally, it cost taxpayers millions of dollars, costs American workers thousands of jobs, and encourages more illegal immigration. By granting amnesty, the Senate proposal actually compounds the problem by encouraging more illegal immigration."
I guess the question, is a pathway to citizenship amnesty?
MCCAIN: Well, I don't think so, Wolf. There's 11 million people who are in our country living in the shadows.
I don't believe that anyone has come up with a plan, if you wanted to deport them, not to mention the effect it would have on our economy. The majority of them have been in our country for over 10 years. But the point is that they would have to -- our plan, they would have a legal status here. But then they would have to go through a long process, get in line behind everyone who is a green cardholder, who has come to this country legally, pay back taxes, go through a background check, learn English, take civic lessons in order to be eligible for a path to citizenship.
And so, I hope that some my colleagues in the house will look at the provisions that we have. And, by the way, they would have to pay back taxes, and they would have to pay for their path to citizenship. So I do not see a scenario where it would cost money.
What costs money now is when people are in this country illegally, show up in the emergency room, with illness, and that bill is paid for by the taxpayers.
BLITZER: I guess the argument, the other side makes -- Lamar Smith, among others -- you tried this in the '80s, during the Reagan administration. There was amnesty and they say it only encouraged more illegal immigrants to try to come to the United States.
MCCAIN: Well, I think that's a good point. I was one of those who voted for that amnesty for 3 million, but there was also the promise along with that, which was not kept, and that is to secure our borders. I believe we now have the technological capabilities, such as surveillance, such as drone, such as fences, that are surveilled, that we can -- coupled with penalties for employers, coupled with a tamper-proof identification or Social Security card or others -- that we cannot only prevent illegal immigration, but we can discourage it by telling people who want to come to this country illegally or showing them that they can't get a job once they get here.
BLITZER: And you think it has a much better chance of winning Republican support. You were pretty blunt at that news conference earlier in the day because of politics. And I'll put some numbers up on the screen. 2012, Romney got 27 percent of the Latino vote. You got 31 percent in 2008, 44 percent went for Bush in 2004.
Our own John King who studies these numbers closely, to win a presidential race, you need at least 40 percent of the Latino vote and that vote is growing.
So, is politics behind this shift among so many Republicans right now?
MCCAIN: Well, I'm not sure if it's politics but it certainly is a realization that if we continue to polarize the Latino/Hispanic vote, that the demographics indicate that our chances for being in the majority are minimal. And so, I'm sure that that is a factor, because many of us believe that they're a natural constituency of ours -- small business, less regulation, big service in the military, pro- life, all of those reasons. But this issue of illegal immigration has obviously been a major driving factor of the decision-making of the Hispanic voter.
BLITZER: The former Florida governor, Jeb Bush, who's pretty popular down in Florida and elsewhere, he had a piece in "The Wall Street Journal" the other day. Among other things he said, "The immigration system is like a jigsaw puzzle. If one or more pieces are out of whack, the puzzle makes no sense. To fix the system, Congress must make sure all of the pieces fit together, logically and snugly."
In other words, he wants a comprehensive package. He doesn't want any piecemeal legislation.
Are you with him on that? MCCAIN: Absolutely. That's why we set out a set of principles that covered literally all aspects of the issue, and we'll be coming forward with comprehensive legislation. Let me emphasize, there will still be fights. There will still be battles.
But I am more confident now that I have ever been that we can reach an agreement and have a bill signed by the president. Not the least of which reason is that more and more Americans realize that we can't forever have 11 million people live in the shadows. We can't have children who were brought here by their parents long ago while they were young children remain in that status.
And we understand, also, that the work and contributions to our economy that our Hispanic citizens and noncitizens have provided is very important.
BLITZER: I think you have the votes in the Senate. But the question is the House. You think you have the votes in the House?
MCCAIN: I think you and I have known each other for many years. I've never counted votes. I've always done what is right. And if that is rejected, I accept that.
But I think I have talents as a politician, but arm-twisting isn't one of mine.
BLITZER: Let me ask you a couple other questions on some other unrelated matters.
BLITZER: Are you going to vote to confirm Chuck Hagel as the next secretary of defense?
MCCAIN: We're going to wait for the hearing on Thursday. I'd like to see how he responds to the committee and my questions during the hearing.
BLITZER: You had a chance to meet with him privately I take it, the other day. Did he give you the answers that you wanted to hear?
MCCAIN: Well, we had a general discussion. There are many specific questions that I had that I didn't ask and he hasn't answered.
BLITZER: What about on guns right now? Are you in favor of much more sweeping comprehensive universal background checks for people who want to purchase a gun?
MCCAIN: I'm certainly glad, and I think all of us are, to see where improvements can be made to keep the guns out of the hands of criminals. Obviously, we'd have to look at the specific proposals.
BLITZER: Because right now if you're a criminal potentially and you have a record, you can go out and buy a gun. If you don't go to a store, you either go to a gun show or you buy it from a private person, should that be made impossible? MCCAIN: Well, obviously, if there are improvements that need to be made to keep -- as I said, to keep these weapons out of the hands of criminals, I'm sure all Americans, including the NRA, would agree with them, I would think.
BLITZER: What about putting a limit on clips, magazine clips and an assault weapons ban, assault-type weapons ban?
MCCAIN: I've not seen how that would improve the situation at all.
BLITZER: Meaning as far as the clips or the assault weapon?
BLITZER: So you don't se a need for tighter legislation? In other words, reducing the number of bullets, for example, from 100 down to 10, which is what Senator Feinstein's recommending?
MCCAIN: I think the burden of proof has to be on those who want such a thing. A second thing is I would point out -- in Norway, where a mass killing took place, they had the strictest gun control laws in the world. Handguns are the ones that commit the majority of crimes in our metropolitan cities in America now. Perhaps we're chasing after the wrong rabbit.
BLITZER: So, what, if anything, would you do as far as tightening up -- if you want to tighten up, guns -- gun control in the country right now is concerned?
MCCAIN: Well, obviously, tighten up controls in either way to keep the guns out of the hands of criminals, including looking seriously at the so-called, quote, "gun show loophole", looking at ways of identifying people who, despite tendencies that could lead to this kind of mayhem that we have seen with these mass murders, educating society about how guns should and could and must be used in a safe and secure manner. There's lots of things we can do, lots conversation.
But to think banning assault weapons is going to stop how many murders that just took place in Chicago over the weekend defies the facts.
BLITZER: One final question before I let you go, Senator -- Sarah Palin, she and FOX have terminated their exclusive arrangement. I'm not sure what she's going to be doing next. Do you have any clue if she wants to get back into politics, stay a pundit? What she wants to do next?
MCCAIN: I know from all my travels that Sarah still has a very sizable following in America. And I'm proud of the work she has -- continues to do, and I'm not sure exactly what her plans are. But I'm sure she will be a major factor in American political scene, and I'm still and always proud of her.
BLITZER: Senator, thanks so much for coming in. We've invited, by the way, Sarah Palin to be a guest here on the show now that she's no longer -- has an exclusive arrangement with FOX and hopefully she'll say yes and we'd love to have her on the show if she wants to do that. MCCAIN: I'm sure she will, like me, look eagerly at the opportunity of chatting with you.
BLITZER: I'm not so sure about that. But you're always very generous in your time. Let's see if Sarah Palin wants to be as generous.
Appreciate it very much, Senator. Thanks very much.
MCCAIN: Thanks, Wolf.