Marco Rubio: A Successful Salesman for Immigration Reform?

Rebecca Kaplan
National Journal

Recess has been tough for Marco Rubio.

Opposition to the Senate Gang of Eight’s bill among his fellow Republicans and the conservative media has grown, despite a slow start. By the end of the week, the Florida senator found himself splashed across the front pages of National Review magazine – normally among Rubio’s cheerleaders – with the words “Rubio’s Folly,” in big, bold letters. Inside, an essay penned by reduced-immigration advocate Mark Krikorian denounced “the Rubio amnesty” and proceeded to rip apart the bill.

If this is what Rubio winning over the right on immigration looks like, the outlook seems bleak.

His membership in the Gang of Eight was seen as a way to provide cover for other conservatives to support comprehensive immigration reform. He's been the most visible salesman of the bill both on the Hill and in the media. But so far, Rubio’s ability to bring the rest of the Senate GOP conference on board with his ideas seems fairly limited.

Many of Rubio’s fellow tea-party Republicans, including Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas, Mike Lee of Utah, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin and Tim Scott of South Carolina, publicly profess a desire to overhaul the legal immigration system – a fresh attitude for the party ushered in by some of its younger members. But they want to do it piece by piece, or leave out a pathway to citizenship, rather than the single-bill method backed by Rubio.

“The response has been mixed but I think that’s to be expected,” said Rubio spokesman Alex Conant. “We’ve worked really hard to make sure that people understand what’s in the bill and what’s not in the bill”

The Gang of Eight bill heads to the Senate Judiciary Committee for mark up this week with at least three of the committee’s eight Republicans – Cruz, Lee and Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala. – voicing opposition. Others, including Sens. John Cornyn of Texas and Chuck Grassley of Iowa, have expressed deep reservations.

“There’s so many problems with the legislation that its hard to know where to start,” Sessions told reporters last week when asked about the mark up. “I do think and I do expect to introduce amendments that will confront the fundamentals of the bill.”

Despite the pressure, Rubio remains committed to the legislation. In a Wall Street Journal op-ed last week, he invited his fellow lawmakers to work with him to strengthen the bill on areas of concern: border security, federal authority and cost.

That’s what he should be doing, said Republican strategist Ron Bonjean. “The key here for Rubio is to define what the problem areas are of the bill himself…in order to stay on the right side of conservatives.”

But Rubio’s op-ed indicated he realizes the limitations of wooing colleagues who, he says, “will never support immigration reform, no matter what changes we make.” He warned that opposition with no proposed solution is a dangerous path. “That would leave the issue entirely in the hands of President Obama and leave in place the disastrous status quo,” he wrote.

That sentiment could help fuel the senators who often work with Rubio but have drawn a line at passing one large immigration bill that contains a pathway to citizenship.

“I think the only way to guarantee successful reform of the entire system is through a series of incremental reforms that ensure the foundational pieces — like border security and an effective entry/exit system — are done properly,” wrote Lee in an op-ed in Utah’s Deseret News last week.

Cruz called the citizenship component the most divisive issue in the immigration debate during a hearing on the legislation last month. “Any bill that insists upon that jeopardizes the likelihood of passing any immigration reform bill,” he said.

If Rubio can’t even win over his usual Senate allies, it’s hard to see an immigration reform package with an overwhelmingly bipartisan vote that many Capitol Hill aides see as key to prodding the more conservative House to act.

Whether the size of the vote should be a measure of Rubio’s influence is debatable. “The sign of success in the end will come not from bringing most of the Republicans aboard, but from bringing a substantial number aboard and mobilizing some conservative Republicans groups who actually favor immigration reform,” said Thomas Mann, a congressional scholar at the Brookings Institution.

Some Republicans who seem like potential ‘yes’ votes have personal motivations for doing so that go beyond Rubio’s appeal.

Sen. Dean Heller hails from Nevada, a state with an increasingly large Hispanic population that gave President Obama a six-point margin of victory in the 2012 elections. Sen. Rand Paul, who offered up his own comprehensive immigration reform plan earlier this year, has made no secret of his presidential ambitions. And Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, told TheSalt Lake Tribune he has been motivated by the support for immigration reform from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, to which he belongs, and the Catholic Church.

National Review aside, Rubio has gotten some support – or at least mitigated opposition – from other conservative outlets and pundits. Fox News’ Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly have expressed openness to comprehensive reform that has Rubio’s stamp on it. Even radio hosts like Rush Limbaugh and Laura Ingraham are more concerned about the possibility Rubio is being played by Democrats than his work on the bill.

The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board even jumped on board over the break, criticizing Republicans who say they want to secure the border before reforming the immigration system. Their real goal isn't border security. It is to use border security as an excuse to kill immigration reform,” they wrote.

Republican pollster Whit Ayres, who counts Rubio as a client, says the senator’s role has created a space on the right to consider immigration reform that didn’t exist during the debate that occurred during President Bush’s second term.

“We have got to compare the current climate to that of 2005 and 2006 when the last major immigration debate occurred. If you compare the reactions of those on the right at the two different periods, it is very clear that Marco Rubio has created a space for this reform to be seriously considered on the right,” he said. Bonjean, who worked for then-Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl in 2007, said the political climate is “much less intense” now.

Others say that regardless of vote brokering, Republicans need Rubio as a credible spokesman with the Latino community. Seeing him defend the bill against critics strengthens that image.

Even if he gets some weeks with some tough language…this is all ephemeral,” said Jeff Hauser, a spokesman for the AFL-CIO. “In the long run the Republican Party needs to have someone who is trusted to communicate with the Latino community and he is their best and only option."