Sen. Marco Rubio was the glue that held together the immigration deal in the Senate, helping set the stage for adding tens of thousands of Border Patrol agents to the final deal — but failing to win many of the changes the Florida Republican himself said he needed to see.
The 68-32 vote last week in favor of the bill was a milestone for the Senate and for the immigration debate, but it was even more important for the first-term senator whose political future is inextricably linked with the landmark legislation he helped write and pass.
“I think the debate has been hard for Marco. It’s been a physical strain, an emotional strain, a political strain. Without a doubt, this has not been peaches and cream for Marco,” said Ana Navarro, a Republican Party strategist from Florida and a Rubio ally.
“But I actually think his political stock has gone way up in the sense that he’s achieved something — he’s gotten a major legislative accomplishment under his belt and he’s made a difference in this debate,” she said. “So you now can’t say he’s the Republican Barack Obama — a first-term senator who made great speeches. This guy now can say he was a crucial part of getting a very controversial piece of bipartisan legislation through.”
Mr. Rubio was one of the “Gang of Eight” senators — four Republicans and four Democrats — who wrote the immigration bill and defended it against major changes.
The crux of the deal offers quick legal status and work permits to illegal immigrants, regardless of any border security improvements. But it withholds full citizenship rights until the government adds more agents to patrol the U.S.-Mexico border, and creates interior infrastructure such as an entry-exit system at airports and a worker verification system for businesses.
Along the way, Mr. Rubio repeatedly found himself on the defensive against critics who said the bill put “amnesty” first and security second, and others who said the Florida Republican, in his third year in office, was getting snookered by the Democrats with whom he was working to write the bill.
Last week, ahead of the final vote, the chief of the union representing Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents accused the senator of having “misled” him and other law enforcement critics by failing to fix the bill’s problems — problems Mr. Rubio acknowledged.
Debate was ‘real trial’
Responding to his critics, Mr. Rubio delivered a broad floor speech Wednesday saying he got involved in writing the bill because it otherwise wouldn’t have any provisions for border security. He also said the final deal is better than current law, which isn’t being enforced at all.
“Getting to this point has been very difficult. To hear the worry and the anxiety and the growing anger in the voices of so many people who helped me get elected to the Senate, whom I agree with on virtually every other issue, has been a real trial for me,” Mr. Rubio said.
“I realize in the end many of my fellow conservatives will not be able to support this reform,” he said. “But I hope you will understand that I honestly believe it is the right thing to do for this country — to finally have an immigration system that works, to finally have a fence, to finally have more agents and E-Verify, and to finally put an end to de facto amnesty.”
Although he helped sell the bill, which garnered support of 14 of the Senate’s 46 Republican members, he didn’t fare as well in making the changes that he promised he would try to do.
Heading into the debate, Mr. Rubio said he wanted significant changes, including to border security, to the entry-exit system to check visitors’ visas, and to the requirement that newly legalized immigrants show they have learned English before they earn green cards.
Mr. Rubio called the English-language loophole “one of the bill’s shortcomings” and vowed to fix it, and even wrote an amendment to require immigrants to prove English skills, rather than merely sign up for classes, which under the bill is considered acceptable.
The Senate never considered that, nor Mr. Rubio’s other amendment to modify eligibility for the Dream Act.
The Senate also ignored the list of nearly two-dozen changes Mr. Rubio’s office floated ahead of the debate in a three-page document designed to point out potential flaws and solutions to the bill.
Of those proposed changes, the Senate accepted two in full and several others in part.
Mr. Rubio’s main public role in the debate wasn’t about amendments or specifics; it was about selling the measure to a skeptical conservative electorate. As a face of the 2010 tea party revolution, Mr. Rubio had the kind of lingering good will that gave him the opening Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican and another key bill author, had long since squandered with much of their party.
Mr. Rubio’s office said he averaged three or four cable television news appearances a week, appeared on every major nationally syndicated talk radio program — often more than once — and visited smaller shows, too.
He set what pundits said was a record by doing seven Sunday political talk shows the same weekend in April — all five English-language shows and two Spanish-language programs. Mr. Rubio also did four or five Spanish-language interviews a week during the immigration debate.
Ford O’Connell, a strategist who worked on the McCain-Sarah Palin Republican presidential ticket in 2008, said Mr. Rubio managed to help dent some of the worst criticisms from conservative critics, which plagued bills in 2006 and 2007.
“Look, he got Rush Limbaugh and some other conservative talking voices to listen to him, and for a while they even sided with him until they dug into the mechanics of the bill,” Mr. O’Connell said, pointing particularly to Mr. Rubio’s success in framing existing law as a free pass for most illegal immigrants. “One of the things he learned very quickly is he set the premise of the debate, which is that our current immigration system is de facto amnesty.”
A Rasmussen Reports poll last month showed Mr. Rubio’s favorability rating had dropped among Republicans by 15 points since February — though he still sits at a rosy 58 percent favorability, and just 16 percent view him unfavorably.
Mr. O’Connell said Mr. Rubio has suffered in the short run and may have damaged himself with the Republican primary electorate in some key early-voting states in 2016, such as Iowa and South Carolina.
But Mr. Rubio now polls better among all voters, meaning he may have helped move himself out of the category of Republican star and become more of a viable candidate for the general election.
“I think people can have deep disagreements and some people can hate what he did, but it is hard not to recognize political courage and leadership, and I think that tips the balance in his favor,” Ms. Navarro said.
Tied to the bill
Mr. Rubio already is winning plaudits from Democrats, including Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York.
“I think the world of him,” Mr. Schumer told late-night comic Stephen Colbert last week.
Michael McKenna, a Republican strategist with deep ties to Capitol Hill, predicted there will be more praise like that for Mr. Rubio — but that it won’t help him when it comes to winning over primary voters.
“He’s instantly the Democrats’ favorite Republican to win the nomination in 2016. The media and the Democratic establishment are going to love him and try to convince us all that he’s really the answer to the problems that plague the Republican Party. I suspect the Republicans are going to have a significantly different take on it,” Mr. McKenna said. “He’s a young man who once had a bright and promising political future. He’s instantly the Brazil of American politics.”
Mr. McKenna said Mr. Rubio also has other problems looming — chiefly the implementation of the bill, if it does become law, whose success will hinge on a Homeland Security Department struggling to follow through on current laws.
“The bill’s bad enough, but the implementation is going to be three times worse, and he’s going to get blamed for this. Who else is going to get blamed? This is Marco Rubio’s bill,” Mr. McKenna said. “He has stapled his political future to a bureaucracy that’s either incapable or unwilling to do its job.”