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Graham sees immigration deal as prelude to budget 'grand bargain'

Sen. Lindsey Graham, a pivotal member of a bipartisan group of senators trying to overhaul the nation’s immigration system, said on NBC’s Meet the Press Sunday that the key to a bipartisan “grand bargain” on entitlement reform and tax reform “is can we solve immigration?”

If Democrats and Republicans can come up with a bill to overhaul the nation’s immigration system, the South Carolina Republican said, it would open the way to a deal on entitlements and taxes.

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A member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Graham has been collaborating with three other Republican senators, Marco Rubio of Florida and Jeff Flake and John McCain of Arizona, along with four Democratic senators, to try to design an immigration bill. This group is known as the Gang of Eight.

Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., discusses what needs to done in the Senate need to do to come together on immigration reform, noting that fellow senator Marco Rubio, R-Fla., has been instrumental in helping the GOP move forward in creating a pathway to citizenship.

“We’re hoping to get this thing done in the next couple of weeks,” the South Carolina Republican told NBC’s David Gregory.

The leading Democratic member of the Gang of Eight, Sen. Charles Schumer of New York said Sunday on CBS's Face the Nation that “So far we're on track. All of us have said there will be no agreement until the eight of us agree to a big, specific bill but hopefully we can get that done by the end of the week.”

The major impediment to reaching a final immigration accord is now the design of a guest worker program, Graham said on Meet the Press. If Republican negotiators are willing to allow a path to citizenship for those foreigners now illegally living in the United States, Graham said, “then the Democratic Party has to give us a guest worker program to help our economy. That’s what we’re arguing over.”

In a message to fellow Republicans, Graham said “the politics of self-deportation are behind us,” – a reference to an idea floated during the 2012 presidential campaign by GOP candidate Mitt Romney. Graham implied that the millions of non-citizens who are illegal living in the United States won’t leave voluntarily and he added that the concept of “self-deportation” was both “impractical” and “offensive.”

Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., tells David Gregory that President Obama's budget will not pass, but some pieces on entitlement reform show he's willing to work with the GOP.

Graham said “nuggets” in proposals already leaked from President Barack Obama’s budget plan for the new fiscal year are “somewhat encouraging” and could lead to a deal with Republicans on entitlements and taxes. Obama is “showing some signs of leadership that has been lacking,” he said.

According to Obama administration officials, the president on Wednesday in his Fiscal Year 2014 budget blueprint will propose some changes in entitlement programs – such as a new formula for Social Security, which would effectively reduce retirement benefits, and raising the premiums that upper-income Medicare beneficiaries would need to pay for coverage.

“We’re beginning to set the stage for the grand bargain,” said Graham.

But he mentioned one idea that Obama has not proposed – raising the eligibility age for Medicare benefits from the current age of 65. Graham called for a change to “harmonize the retirement age of Medicare with Social Security.” For middle-aged and younger workers, the eligibility age for full Social Security retirement benefits is 67. For Medicare benefits, the eligibility age is now 65.

On immigration, Graham faces increasingly vocal opposition from some of his fellow Republicans in the Senate.

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On Friday, four Republican members of the Judiciary Committee, led by ranking member Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, sent a letter to Graham and the other Gang of Eight Republicans saying, “your group has secretly met for months and not consulted with members of the Committee about major changes to our nation’s immigration laws. The time for transparency has come.”

Grassley and his GOP colleagues complained about   the “rushed timetable” which they say Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy, D- Vt., has set for committee approval of the immigration overhaul, moving directly to committee drafting of a bill, with no additional committee hearings.

“We believe it is time for you to discuss the status of your negotiations, disclose what concessions have been made, and provide details to members of the Judiciary Committee as well as the entire Republican Caucus,” the Grassley group said in its letter to Graham and other GOP Gang of Eight members.