Sen. John McCain told a Hispanic group Saturday that passing an immigration bill to legalize illegal immigrants is "my top priority, yesterday, today and tomorrow," but mischaracterized his own voting record on the issue and continued to distance himself from provisions in his own bill.
Speaking to the group later, his Democratic presidential opponent, Sen. Barack Obama, said Mr. McCain has cast aside his principles on immigration in the face of political pressure.
"What he didn't mention is that when he was running for his party's nomination, he walked away from that commitment. He said that he wouldn't even support his own legislation if it came up for a vote," Mr. Obama told the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO), which was holding its annual convention in Washington.
"If we're going to solve the challenges we face, we can't vacillate, we can't shift depending on our politics," Mr. Obama said, drawing applause for his criticism of Mr. McCain.
Immigration is a signature issue for Mr. McCain, but it's also been a thorny one, and he's been accused of pandering to his audiences this year.
On Saturday, he mischaracterized his own record on the contentious 1986 amnesty law that continues to define the sides in the current debate. He told NALEO he "supported that legislation way back then," when in fact he voted against it and was a critic.
The Arizona Republic newspaper in 1986 reported that he had called the bill racist and quoted him as saying the bill's requirements for employers to verify workers "would institutionalize discrimination." He said employers would refuse to hire Hispanics to avoid running afoul of the law.
After his speech Saturday, a McCain campaign official said the senator "was referring to his support for a comprehensive solution - going back to that time. He did oppose some provisions and didn't end up voting for the bill - that's a point of record."
Both candidates are scheduled to speak in two weeks to the National Council of La Raza's convention in San Diego, where immigration also is likely to dominate.
Mr. McCain was a chief author of an immigration proposal that became the basis for Senate debates in 2006 and 2007.
After distancing himself from those bills during the Republican primaries, Mr. McCain has in recent months re-embraced them. He took credit at NALEO for trying to pass the 2007 version, and his campaign accused Mr. Obama of voting for amendments that hurt the bill's chances, even though Mr. Obama supported the overall bill itself.
Among those were amendments he favored to reduce the number of new foreign workers from 400,000 to 200,000 and to "sunset" various parts of the bill to give Congress a chance to evaluate them.
In the final vote, the immigration bill failed to muster a majority in the Senate.
Still, Mr. McCain holds up his work on the bill as a key test of his own record of bipartisanship.
Mr. McCain did distance himself from another part of his 2007 bill that would have allowed future foreign workers in the "guest worker" program to also remain and become citizens.
On Saturday, Mr. McCain instead called for "a temporary worker program that is verifiable and truly temporary." In doing so, he put himself squarely with President Bush, whose main objection to the 2007 bill was that it made future workers also eligible for permanent residence at the end of their work periods.
During his brief opening speech, Mr. McCain was interrupted three times by protesters angry over the Iraq war. Each time they were booed and shushed by the audience as they were being escorted out, and Mr. McCain received a long standing ovation at the end of his prepared remarks.
"That makes me feel very wonderful to have such a wonderful reception," the senator said.
While they greeted Mr. McCain with respect, though, they embraced Mr. Obama, with the crowd chanting his name as he took the stage. It was a good sign for the Democrat, who had trouble winning Hispanic votes against Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton in the Democratic primaries.
A recent AP-Yahoo News poll found Mr. Obama holding a lead over Mr. McCain among Hispanics, 47 percent to 22 percent with 26 percent undecided.
While Mr. McCain called for humane treatment of illegal immigrants, Mr. Obama explicitly called for citizenship rights to be granted to them after they pay fines, show they are trying to learn English and get in line for permanent residence.
He also said he opposes "jacking up fees" for legal immigration, saying it pushes would-be immigrants to cross illegally. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services charges fees based on the cost of processing and raised those fees last year.
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