Why Marco Rubio needs to slow walk immigration reform

April 1, 2013

Shortly after 8 a.m. on Sunday morning, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio (R) released a statement making clear that there was no deal on comprehensive immigration reform.

"I’m encouraged by reports of an agreement between business groups and unions on the issue of guest workers," Rubio said. "However, reports that the bipartisan group of eight senators have agreed on a legislative proposal are premature."


Florida Sen. Marco Rubio

The statement -- both its timing and its contents -- was a deliberate attempt by Rubio to slow down the momentum toward a deal on immigration. Rubio knew that New York Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer -- another member of the so-called "Gang of 8" that is negotiating on immigration and the de facto chief strategist for his side -- was scheduled to appear on NBC News's "Meet the Press" later Sunday morning. And the Florida Republican knew that Schumer would cast the immigration negotiations as a done deal, which, of course, he did. ("With the agreement between business and labor, every major policy issue has been resolved on the ‘Gang of Eight,’” Schumer told Chuck Todd.)

What Rubio was doing in releasing his statement then was ensuring that Schumer's "it's all over but the shouting" declaration didn't reek of capitulation to conservatives who are closely watching every move the Florida Republican makes -- on immigration and everything else.

"The Senate is littered with Republicans who negotiated with Chuck Schumer, thinking they had one deal when he had something else entirely in mind," said Rick Wilson, a Florida-based GOP consultant. "I think [Rubio is] very mindful of the two potential negative outcomes (something perceived as a blanket/easy amnesty or a deal perceived as not moving the ball in a meaningful way) but still views this as a right policy/right politics matter."

Rubio allies insist the effort to reform the immigration system is not something he could have avoided even if he had wanted to, which, they vehemently note, he did not, solely because of his ethnic background (he's Cuban-American) and the fact that most everyone in both parties thinks he is running for president.

“The truth is that this is not that complicated," said Rubio consultant Todd Harris. "Marco has told anyone who will listen what his principles are regarding immigration reform, as well as what he could support and what his red lines are. Floridians know it, the conservative base knows it and so do his fellow senators."

True enough. But, appearances (and perceptions) matter quite a bit in politics. And, if the perception is that Rubio either a) got rolled or b) rolled over when it comes to a path to citizenship for undocumented workers, which Democrats insist must be in any comprehensive plan, it could mean real trouble for him with the conservative base of the GOP.

In the end, Rubio has to be able to say to conservatives something along these lines: "I fought with Democrats. I told them what we needed to allow undocumented workers a path to citizenship. They didn't want it but I held firm and we got it done."

The fight is almost as important as the final outcome, politically speaking, when it comes to Rubio's relationship with the base.  Yes, having been seen as the lead GOP voice in making comprehensive immigration reform happen would be a huge feather in his 2016 general election cap, but Rubio and his team know that to get there they have to win the Republican nomination first.

Of course, Rubio has shown a remarkable willingness to balance his need to keep conservatives on his side (or, at least, not opposed to him) while also preserving his general election viability to date.

"Senator Rubio has to balance multiple political facets: conservatives and liberals; Republicans and Democrats; business and labor; hard-charging primary and caucus voters and general election independents; West Coast rappers and East Coast rappers," said Eric Ueland, a GOP lobbyist and longtime Senate hand. "So far he's been successful in an explosive landscape, and if he keeps an equilibrium between those who want new responsibility and accountability in the immigration system and those who want to enhance and expand the American workforce, he can come out of this with credit from all sides."

Fixbits:

Late this month, former secretary of state Hillary Clinton will give her first paid speech since leaving the State Department. Meanwhile, three Clinton super PACs have formed in recent months. None have the formal blessing of Clinton or her inner circle.

Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) said it's "inevitable" that a GOP presidential candidate will someday support gay marriage. And Flake could support such a candidate, despite his own opposition to gay marriage, he added.

Business and labor leaders came to an agreement over a new guest-worker program.

President Obama and the first family attended Easter worship Sunday at St. John's Church near the White House. And Rev. Luis Leon leveled criticism against political conservatives during the service.

On Saturday, Obama attended the Syracuse-Marquette basketball game at the Verizon Center.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) signaled he won't join a filibuster of gun control legislation.

Mark Sanford (R) and Curtis Bostic (R) largely agreed in their final television debate ahead of Tuesday's runoff in South Carolina's 1st District.

Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) will run for reelection in 2014.

Democratic-aligned House Majority PAC is hitting Republicans with an April Fools' Day Web site.

Must-reads: 

"Beef with the sequester? At least one federal program was able to beat it." -- David A. Fahrenthold and Lisa Rein, Washington Post

"Rubio among senators working on immigration, but he also stands apart" -- David Nakamura, Washington Post

"Va. Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli’s disclosure of stock holdings was delayed" -- Rosalind S. Helderman and Laura Vozzella, Washington Post

"Sanford looks to clear second hurdle to comeback" -- Bruce Smith, Associated Press

"As Views Shift on Guns, Reid Corrals Senate" -- Jennifer Steinhauer, New York Times

"States Harden Views Over Laws Governing Abortion" -- Louise Radnofsky, Wall Street Journal

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