A Border Patrol agent peers through the fence in San Diego in the "Smuggler's Gulch" area along the U.S.-Mexico border.


WASHINGTON - An afternoon meeting at the White House between President Obama and key Republican senators who are working on immigration reform ended on an upbeat note, with high hopes for legislation "sooner rather than later," one of the lawmakers said.

The president's overture to Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina was the first in some time to his occasional opponents, and showed the emphasis Obama has put on making immigration reform a top priority. The men met privately, along with Vice President Joe Biden.

"I believe that the president is very committed to comprehensive immigration reform," McCain said.

McCain and Graham quickly issued a joint statement calling it an "excellent meeting."

"One of the best meetings I've ever had with the president," Graham said afterward. "I was quite frankly encouraged; I think we'll have presidential leadership in a very productive way on immigration reform, and with that we've got a very good chance of doing it this year."

The White House was not expected to discuss details of the meeting, although the administration was pleased with Graham's recent posture on a more immediate topic in Washington - the coming automatic federal budget cuts, which were also discussed at the meeting.

Graham broke with his party earlier in the week by suggesting he would be open to Obama's proposals to eliminate tax loopholes and deductions, but only as part of a larger deficit-reduction deal that would include changes to Medicare, Medicaid and other entitlement programs.

No budget deal appears likely before Friday's cuts are set to begin, but the tax and spending issues are expected to dominate Congress this year with additional deadlines looming this spring and summer.

The meeting at the White House was the first for Graham since the early years of Obama's first term, and McCain had not been invited to meet with the president until after the Tucson mass shooting in 2011.

The senators have been leaders on immigration issues and are part of the bipartisan group of eight who have been meeting behind closed doors on immigration reform in hopes of bringing a bill forward this spring.

Graham downplayed the absence at the White House meeting of the other Republican members of the group - Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona - saying he and McCain would not take action without agreement from the others.

Obama has made immigration reform a priority, but the administration has chosen to play a largely supporting role as the legislators hammer out the details.

On StarNet: Find extensive coverage of immigration issues at azstarnet.com/border