Florida Sen. Marco Rubio gave a passionate, slightly cheesy speech on Thursday to convince conservatives that immigration reform will actually do things they want, just a few hours before the Senate was set to vote on the bill. Rubio has been trying to win over conservative hearts and minds for months, frequently going on talk radio shows and Fox News to sell his legislation (Radio host Mark Levin says Rubio even texted him in the middle of a show to say he was wrong about a detail of the bill). But he hasn't won over everyone. House Speaker John Boehner had announced just a few hours earlier that he would make it pretty difficult for immigration reform to pass — insisting that the bill would not get a vote unless a majority of House Republicans would vote for it. (Multiple Republicans have threatened to oust him if he did otherwise.) Some had speculated that after the House and Senate came up with a compromise in conference committee, Boehner would let that pass with Democratic votes. But Boehner nixed that, too.
The Senate will probably get 69 votes to pass immigration. It's a big majority, but not big enough for some House Republicans. "We have a minority of the minority in the Senate voting for this bill," Oklahoma Rep. Tom Cole told The New York Times's Jonathan Weisman this week. "That's not going to put a lot of pressure on the majority of the majority in the House." Weisman reports that two top GOP aides said Boehner "has no intention of angering conservative voters and jeopardizing the House Republican majority in 2014 in the interest of courting Hispanic voters on behalf of a 2016 Republican presidential nominee who does not yet exist." And maybe the theoretical 2016 candidate is in trouble, too! Sarah Palin suggested Rubio should face a primary challenger for supporting immigration reform, in an interview with Breitbart News. "We have long memories, and there will be consequences for those who break campaign promises and vote for this amnesty bill," she said.
Rubio says he's bothered by all the conservative criticism. "To hear the worry, anxiety and growing anger in the voices of so many people who helped me get elected to the Senate, who I agree with on virtually every other issue, has been a real trial for me," he said Wednesday. Over the last few months, Rubio's fought back against the mainstream conservative complaints: that his bill would cost too much, that it would not secure the border. But his speech on Thursday subtly took on one of the uglier attacks on immigration: that Latino immigrants are too culturally different, so we want fewer of them. Earlier this month, for example, Iowa Rep. Steve King warned that immigration advocates "are salivating over putting their imprimatur on history and changing the character and the culture and the direction of the civilization of America." Rush Limbaugh warned earlier this year that unlike immigrants 100 years ago, today's immigrants are "not interested in this distinct American culture."
On Thursday, Rubio again told the story of his Cuban immigrant parents, stressing that his dad was a hard worker. "My father had someone phonetically write on a small piece of paper the words 'I am looking for work,'" Rubio said. "He memorized those words. They were literally some of the first words he learned to speak in English." When immigrants come here, Rubio said, they start acting more like us. "It reminds us that sometimes, we focus so much on how immigrants could change America, that we forget that America changes immigrants even more." He concluded by reminding his colleagues how much he wanted reform to pass: "And that's why I support this reform," he said. "Not just because I believe in immigrants, but because I believe in America even more."