The new Senate immigration bill has been public for less than a week, and Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio already is playing defense against conservatives and members of his own party who are pushing back hard.
Rubio established himself as the point man for the bill with the conservative movement earlier this year when he gave interviews to the nation's top right-leaning radio and television programs in January and again when the bill was unveiled. But as details emerge, conservative journalists, pundits and bloggers are coming down hard on the Florida lawmaker for taking part in crafting the bill. Armed with opposition research from Republican lawmakers who oppose the bill, organizations with a broad conservative following, such as National Review, Breitbart News, the Heritage Foundation and The Washington Examiner, are regularly accusing Rubio of misleading the public about the bill, and they are working to drum up early opposition against it from the right.
For Rubio, the implications of the debate are broader in scope than merely passing immigration reform. The 41-year-old Rubio is considered a possible contender to represent the Republican Party as a presidential nominee in the future—perhaps as early as 2016—and his handling of the party's most conservative ranks will be examined as a testament to his ability to lead. Until this point, Rubio has proved himself a darling of the right, with advocacy groups considering him one of the most conservative lawmakers in the Senate. As a newcomer to the chamber, the immigration fight is really the first time Rubio has played a lead role in a major bipartisan effort, especially one that will force him to stick his neck out and embrace compromise.
Faced with an onslaught from the right, Rubio and his staff are not ignoring the criticism. Rubio's office has established a rapid response system that aims to aggressively rebut conservative criticism of the bill. Last week he launched a website called "Immigration Reform Facts," which targets individual claims made against the bill and works to dispel them. Over the past few days, Rubio's office has released a flurry of press releases pushing back against some of the more prominent criticisms.
Case in point: On Wednesday, conservative news outlets reported that the bill would provide free cell phones to illegal immigrants. It was only a matter of hours before Rubio addressed it, telling conservative talk radio host Laura Ingraham that the cell phone program in the bill was actually meant for people who live in remote regions on the border who don't have access to cell service and cannot notify authorities about illegal crossings.
Rubio staffers are even sparring with individual conservative writers on social network sites such as Twitter. Over the weekend, Rubio spokesman Alex Conant held a lengthy and heated discussion with Conn Carrol, a former Heritage Foundation staffer who now writes for The Washington Examiner, over details in the bill. The exchange culminated with Conant saying, "We haven't had a cohort of people living permanently in US without full rights of citizenship since slavery," a comment that outraged some conservatives, who accused Conant of comparing them with slave owners. In a statement to The Daily Caller, Conant later said he regretted "evoking slavery" in his public conversation with Carrol.
Rubio also is fighting a battle over the language being used to define the bill. (Any good lawmaker knows that quality messaging can be as important as sound policymaking, which is why the words used to discuss the bill publicly could do as much to derail it as the bill's actual contents.) Last week, Alabama Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee and one of the bill's most fierce critics, said the bill amounts to "amnesty" for immigrants living in the country illegally, and that they would be granted it "immediately."
Rubio's team shot back: "If this bill becomes law, it would not immediately grant legal status to anyone here illegally. On day one, no illegal immigrant is rewarded with anything." The memo went on to say that the Department of Homeland Security would be required to meet a series of security triggers from "day one." After a six-month period, according to the bill's language, immigrants without legal status would be allowed to apply for work visas after passing a background check, paying fines and taxes and proving gainful employment.
Rubio's handling of the immigration debate may not define him for the remainder of his career, but his willingness to work with Democrats on a substantive piece of legislation might be an early sign that he's more interested in preserving a legacy as a workhorse who takes his lumps to achieve something than a show horse who never got a bill to the president's desk.