Activists at the Conservative Political Action Conference this week say they want to give Sen. Marco Rubio a look as a potential GOP presidential candidate, but say his efforts to push a “comprehensive” immigration bill through the Senate remain troubling.
Their wariness underscores a political reality: Two years after Republican and establishment conservative leaders insisted their party needs to do an about-face on immigration, the party’s right-wing base is still having none of it, insisting that any would-be 2016 GOP standard-bearer take a firm stand against any legal status for illegal immigrants.
“I have had my eye on Marco Rubio for a long time, and when he came out with the Gang of Eight I thought, ‘What are you doing? What is going on?’ It just kind of stopped me in my tracks, just because I did not understand that at all,” said Roz Bellis, an Air Force veteran. “So I will still be looking at him, but I still have that in the back of my mind.”
Establishment Republicans had hoped 2013 would be the year to finally bury the immigration issue by passing a bill, and Mr. Rubio was one of eight senators — four Republicans and four Democrats — that wrote legislation legalizing most illegal immigrants, giving them a long-term path to citizenship while working to stiffen border security and boost the level of legal immigration.
That bill passed the Senate 68-32, with 14 Republicans joining all Democrats. House GOP leaders tried to press their troops to follow suit, but an intraparty rebellion forced them to back off.
This year’s CPAC gathering coincides with another immigration fight on Capitol Hill, with conservatives fearing their leaders will retreat on a vow to use homeland security funding as leverage to force Mr. Obama to rescind his deportation amnesty.
Larry Minniear, 63, said that he doesn’t believe either Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, or House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, are working toward conservatives’ goal on the bill.
“I don’t trust them for much of anything,” Mr. Minniear said. “They have just been very wishy-washy.”
Bob Nichols, 63, said Republicans had folded to Democrats on the issue, saying Mr. McConnell and Mr. Boehner deserve the blame for not taking a firmer stand.
“It is really disturbing that we hired people that didn’t go through with what they were supposed to do,” said Mr. Nichols of New Jersey. “I am not real happy with either one of them.”
Activists in the ballroom here applauded when Sen. Ted Cruz, Texas Republican and a potential presidential candidate in 2016, told CPAC conventioneers they were being betrayed.
“Unfortunately, Republican leadership is cutting a deal with Harry Reid and the Democrats to give in on executive amnesty,” Mr. Cruz said, explaining that the reason is “because they are not listening to you.”
The freshman lawmaker said the situation is emblematic of the disconnect between elected leaders in Washington and ordinary Americans.
“In Washington, K Street and Wall Street love amnesty,” Mr. Cruz said.
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal also directed sharp criticism at GOP leaders on Capitol Hill.
“It’s time for Republican leaders in Congress to grow a spine. It is time for them to do the job we elected them to do,” Mr. Jindal said.
Mr. Rubio, meanwhile, has somewhat backed away from the 2013 immigration bill, saying that the country isn’t ready for a broad legalization measure yet, and saying the issue should be tackled step-by-step.
Republican establishment leaders argue that unless the GOP embraces legalization, it cannot win the White House in future elections, when a growing Hispanic electorate will be increasingly powerful.
Not all Republicans agree with that math, and some argue their party would alienate its conservative base — a sentiment underscored by the activists at CPAC.