[cnn-photo-caption image= http://i.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2008/images/05/05/art.mccain.monday.jpg caption="John McCain touted his stance on immigration Monday"]
CHARLOTTE, North Carolina (CNN) - John McCain the presidential candidate suddenly sounded like the John McCain of 2005 on Monday, touting two pet issues that have generated considerable heartache among grassroots conservatives: the “Gang of 14” compromise and comprehensive immigration reform.
McCain brought up the “Gang of 14” saga unprompted at a town hall here, in advance of a major speech on judicial appointments he is set to deliver tomorrow in Winston-Salem.
“I know what bipartisanship is,” McCain said. “I am going to talk tomorrow again about our Gang of 14: seven Republicans, seven Democrats that got together rather than blow up the Senate, and we confirmed so many federal judges.”
In the spring of 2005, McCain and 13 other senators from both parties agreed on a compromise to avoid the so-called “nuclear option,” which would have curtailed the right of the minority to filibuster. Democrats had been filibustering to prevent the confirmation of three conservative judicial nominees named by President Bush.
McCain said he took pride in his votes to confirm Supreme Court Justices John Roberts and Samuel Alito, a line that drew applause from assembled members of the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce.
The Arizona senator also seemed to move past his usual “secure the borders first” mantra in favor of calling for, as he put it, “comprehensive immigration reform."
Last summer, McCain and Sen. Edward Kennedy led the charge on an immigration reform package that aroused the ire of conservatives and ultimately threatened to undermine McCain's then-frontrunning presidential bid. (McCain also supported immigration reform bills in 2005 and 2006.)
“Unless we enact comprehensive immigration reform I don’t think you can take it piecemeal,” he explained Monday, answering a question about providing visas for skilled workers.
“In other words,” he said, “because as soon you and I start to talk about the highly skilled workers, our agricultural interest people are going to say, ‘Look we need ag workers, too.’ And then somebody’s going say, 'We need the DREAM Act,' and then somebody’s going to say, 'We’ve got to enforce our border.'”
Throughout the Republican primary battle last fall, McCain faced relentless questions about his support for the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act, the 2007 bill that would have allowed illegal immigrants to remain in the United States if they faced certain penalties. Opponents labeled it “amnesty.”
Since clinching the nomination, McCain has largely avoided speaking about wide-ranging immigration reform, arguing primarily that the government needs to focus on securing the border with Mexico before taking on other measures.
On Monday, he lobbied for a broader approach that includes a temporary guest worker program and tamper-proof ID cards.
“We get in this kind of a circular firing squad on immigration reform in the Congress of the United States," McCain said, "and the lesson I learned from it is we’ve got to have comprehensive immigration reform.”