Marking the boldest move of his brief congressional career, Sen. Marco Rubio walked out on a limb this week by joining a move to pass comprehensive immigration reform — thrusting him into the middle of a thorny political debate that carries risk and reward for the freshman lawmaker.
The move also represented a sharp break with the Florida Republican’s far more cautious record on one of the nation’s most divisive issues.
Mr. Rubio, the son of Cuban immigrants, took a much more hands-off approach on immigration a decade ago. With his eyes set on becoming speaker of the Florida House, the Miami-area lawmaker withdrew his support from a bill that would have granted some illegal immigrants in-state tuition rates at community colleges and state universities.
“He just didn’t see a lot of value in it, and he was always cautious of being viewed as only being interested in Hispanic issues because that might get in the way of his ambition of being speaker,” said former Florida state Rep. Juan C. Zapata, the Republican who wrote the in-state tuition bill and the first Colombian-American elected to the Florida House.
Now a member of the Miami-Dade County Board of County Commissioners, Mr. Zapata told The Washington Times that Mr. Rubio was not anti-immigrant by any means. He was, however, determined not to get pigeonholed as a leading advocate on the issue of immigration, which was becoming more and more emotionally charged.
“It was not as much as his personal conviction but more about his personal ambition,” Mr. Zapata said, alluding to the fact that Mr. Rubio co-sponsored his tuition bill in 2003 and 2004 before backing out of it in the subsequent years.
Mr. Rubio won the Florida House speakership, rode the tea party wave to win Florida’s Senate seat in 2010 and spent his first two years building his legislative credentials on Capitol Hill.
Changing the message
Along the way, Mr. Rubio, one of two Hispanic Republicans in the Senate, has changed how he talks about immigration.
In that 2010 campaign, during which he emerged as a rising star in the Republican Party, he said that an “earned path to citizenship is basically code for ‘amnesty.’”
This week, he embraced that type of earned path to citizenship when he signed onto a five-page framework for immigration reform, joining a bipartisan group of eight senators who have vowed to push for a bill this year. Mr. Rubio spoke — in English and Spanish — at the packed news conference Monday in strong defense of the compromise.
Their framework would grant most of the estimated 11 million-plus illegal immigrants in the country legal status “on Day One,” and offer them a chance to earn citizenship over time by paying fines, learning English and keeping out of trouble. The government, meanwhile, would have to bolster border security and enforcement.
For Mr. Rubio, the issue is a chance to make his mark as he ponders a 2016 run for the White House amid a shifting political landscape.
Many analysts said the 2012 election showed the politics of immigration have shifted from the last decade, when supporting legalization was considered to be politically poisonous, to now, when a huge edge with Hispanic voters helped President Obama win re-election.
Indeed, Mr. Obama won Hispanic voters 71 percent to 27 percent over Republican nominee Mitt Romney, who staked out the most hard-line immigration stance of any major party nominee in history.
In the wake of the election, Republican leaders and political operatives have warned their rank-and-file lawmakers that they risk becoming unelectable at the national level unless they find a way to woo Hispanics.
In a postelection interview at a Washington Ideas Forum, Mr. Rubio said, “It’s really hard to get people to listen to you on economic growth, on tax rates, on health care, if they think you want to deport their grandmother.”
“He is sticking his neck on a limb a bit, but it is a very calculated move, and he is one of the few people in the party who can do it,” he said.
After he joined the senators in releasing the immigration framework Monday, Mr. Rubio went on a charm offensive to try to win over some of the most powerful voices in conservative media. He conducted interviews with radio host Rush Limbaugh and Fox News’ Sean Hannity, assuring them that he will insist on more border security as part of any legalization deal.
“What you are doing is admirable and noteworthy,” Mr. Limbaugh said. “You are recognizing reality.”
Mr. Rubio on Tuesday also warned Mr. Obama — who was unveiling his own immigration reform blueprint in an address in Las Vegas — against trying to push the senators too far to the left.
“The president’s speech left the impression that he believes reforming immigration quickly is more important than reforming immigration right,” he said.
Despite the approval from conservative talk-show hosts, the politics of the issue could prove perilous for Mr. Rubio — in particular, his embrace of a path to citizenship for those in the U.S. illegally.
“I think they have probably overstepped a little,” said Aubrey Jewett, associate chairman of the political science department at the University of Central Florida, who has followed Mr. Rubio’s career. “I think they might be able to finesse through something where illegal immigrants are legalized through work permits. But as far as where, over a period of time, those folks get a path to citizenship, I think there is going to be a huge backlash, not from the Republican establishment but from the Republican base.”
Al Cardenas, American Conservative Union chairman and a Rubio mentor, said there is a potential downside in “passing [a proposal] with a path to amnesty component that is not acceptable” to conservatives.
Mr. Cardenas, a fellow Cuban-American, downplayed the notion that Mr. Rubio’s push is fueled by political ambitions and called his stance “courageous.”
“With Marco’s charisma and rise to a figure of national prominence, taking a risk of this nature is not what a political strategist would tell him to do — because he does not need the potential downside of this. He understands fully that he is going to incur the wrath of quite a few folks in the [conservative] movement and bear the brunt of that,” Mr. Cardenas said. “At this point, it is wait and see.”