With endorsement of immigration plan, Rubio makes first major policy gambit of his career

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, made the rounds Sunday morning, appearing on nearly every talk show. He discussed immigration, impending gun-control legislation, and his criticism of Beyonce and Jay-Z’s trip to Cuba. (Nicki DeMarco/The Washington Post)

It was early one morning in December when Richard J. Durbin spotted Marco Rubio in the members-only Senate gym.

Dedicated fitness buffs, the two had become unlikely workout buddies. Now Durbin (D-Ill.) wanted to know whether Rubio (R-Fla.) would join him in another heavy lift: a fledgling bipartisan group tackling immigration reform.

“You ought to be a part of this,” Durbin, 68, told his 41-year-old colleague, according to people familiar with the conversation. “You’d be an important voice, so come hear us out.”

On Tuesday, the bipartisan “Gang of Eight” is set to unveil a proposal that would represent the most far-reaching overhaul of immigration laws since 1986. The process of developing the legislation, which features a path to citizenship for up to 11 million immigrants who are in the country illegally, was hammered out in two dozen meetings led by veterans of earlier immigration battles, including Sens. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.).

But in many ways, the senators’ negotiations, behind the scenes and in public, have hinged on a party of one. Rubio, the tea party favorite whose parents emigrated from Cuba, has been considered the most crucial player all along. Although he has seemed to waver at times, his full-throated endorsement of the bill Sunday, in a marathon round of seven television interviews, put at ease a group of colleagues who have been working hard to ensure he stays the course.

Durbin wasn’t the only one who reached out to Rubio. The senator from Florida was added to the group after Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) made clear to Graham and McCain that Rubio’s participation would be critical to winning conservative support. President Obama phoned Rubio, who was traveling in Israel, after the senator dismissed details of an administration immigration plan leaked to the media in February. And Schumer called Rubio two weeks ago to confirm his support after the Republican publicly expressed skepticism about the pace of negotiations.

By joining the cause, the potential 2016 presidential candidate has set himself down a politically risky path — one that could pay big dividends but is likely to become even more treacherous after details of the bill become public. Shortly after Rubio’s talk-show appearances, NumbersUSA, a conservative anti-immigration group, issued a statement denouncing the “Obama-Rubio-Schumer” deal. And Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) charged that his colleagues had “abandoned” a pledge to make border security the highest priority.

“I am not the self-appointed anything,” Rubio said Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union” after host Candy Crowley called him the Republican face of immigration reform. “I’ve worked on this bill, and . . . part of my job is to explain to people what it is we’ve worked on, try to justify it and hopefully gain their support.”

Although his colleagues believe he’s “all in,” how Rubio manages the public debate and fends off attacks on the legislation could go a long way in determining how much credit — or blame — the young senator walks away with in the first major policy gambit of his career.

A gradual shift

In his CNN interview, Rubio acknowledged that his position on immigration has evolved.

“There are people that have ideas out there now that used to be my original position,” he said. “And I’ll be able to tell them the thought process I went through. . . . And I think I’ll be able to justify . . . virtually every single aspect of this bill.”

A year ago, Rubio was peddling a different plan aimed at giving legal residency to young people brought to the United States as children, an alternative to the failed Dream Act, which created a pathway to citizenship. Aides said the senator developed his proposal after growing increasingly disturbed by reports that a Miami high school valedictorian named Daniela Pelaez, whose parents entered the country illegally when she was 4, was ordered by a judge to be deported with her older sister.

At the time, Rubio agreed with other conservatives that the Dream Act amounted to “amnesty.” He considered his plan a better solution, but he was forced to drop it in June when Obama, amid a push for Latino votes, upstaged him by announcing that the administration would no longer deport young people who were otherwise law-abiding residents.

Rubio felt burned by the president, and the two have had sour relations since. But after Obama swept to reelection with 71 percent of the Latino vote, Republican leaders decided they had no choice but to make a move on immigration.

In the days after Obama’s victory in November, Graham left a message for Schumer. “Let’s get the band back together,” the South Carolinian said.

Graham and McCain initially attempted to recruit conservative Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), but he declined to endorse a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, said people with knowledge of the discussions.

McConnell suggested Rubio, who expressed interest but insisted that the group agree to tough new border-control provisions — especially miles of new fencing along the southwestern border. He also told the group that he wanted to gauge reaction from House GOP members, and he spent a lot of time discussing his ideas with Rep. Raúl R. Labrador (R-Idaho), a fellow tea party conservative and Latino who does not support giving citizenship to undocumented residents.

“Marco is a Hispanic, a rising star, and he understood immigration at a personal level,” Graham said. But “there was concern that somebody who’s got presidential ambitions on our side might not want to deal with [the political fallout]. We had to make sure we were not going to set this guy up.”

Rubio conducted a round of media interviews, including with the conservative Wall Street Journal editorial board and radio host Rush Limbaugh, laying out his principles and emphasizing that he would not endorse any plan that didn’t include strong border security.

Buoyed by a positive reaction, Rubio joined the bipartisan Senate group and hired an experienced immigration lawyer from Miami, Enrique Gonzalez, to serve as his chief counsel during the tense backroom negotiations.

An alliance on the edge

In late January, the White House announced that Obama would lay out his immigration principles at a major speech in Las Vegas. It would be the second time in a year that the president would upstage Rubio, and Democrats were fearful that Obama would blow up the delicate balance of the bipartisan effort by laying out a far more liberal plan.

Schumer called Obama and told him that the group had decided to lay out its principles a day before his event. The president said he would not object and would support the group’s efforts, said people familiar with the conversation.

The detente didn’t last long.

In mid-February, details of the president’s legislation were leaked to the media, and Rubio declared the plan “dead on arrival.” The senator’s aides said he was angered further when White House officials implied that the administration had spoken with Rubio before developing its proposals.

“Senator Rubio’s office has never discussed immigration policy with anyone in the White House,” his spokesman, Alex Conant, said in a statement at the time. “If the Obama administration is serious about drafting and passing its own immigration reform, why wouldn’t they seek input from any Republicans whose support they’ll need?”

By the following day, the White House was in full damage-control mode. Obama called several members of the Senate group, including Rubio, who was in Israel, to make amends. He also invited Graham and McCain to the White House and praised their efforts.

The fragile alliance was back on track. But in late March, Rubio again reacted with skepticism after Schumer announced that the Senate group had reached an agreement between labor and business leaders over a new visa program for low-skilled foreign workers — the final major hurdle to a comprehensive deal.

In a statement, Rubio cautioned that reports of a deal were “premature.”

“I was blindsided by that. I was confused,” Schumer said. He said that he called Rubio and that the two talked for an hour and a half.

“I wanted to make sure that he was committed, that this really was not an excuse to leave the talks,” Schumer said. Rubio’s concern, voiced by the senator and his staff in public in the ensuing days, was that the deal might not include his principles and that the process might be rushed, costing conservative support. Schumer said Rubio convinced him that he would remain on board.

Schumer explained Rubio’s position to other Democrats and to the White House. The pace of negotiations picked up after that. Capitol Hill aides said Rubio was intimately involved in the final days, helping work out a last-minute impasse over the wages of foreign farm workers.

The bill will include $7 billion in funding for increases to border and workplace security, something Rubio and other GOP members have emphasized.

But big political questions remain. On “Fox News Sunday,” host Chris Wallace asked Rubio whether his support of comprehensive immigration reform would harm him in a GOP primary in 2016.

“I haven’t really thought about it that way,” the senator replied. “My job in the Senate is not just to give speeches and do interviews — it’s to solve problems. And anyone who thinks that what we have now in immigration is not a problem is fooling themselves.”

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