On Friday I spoke with Alex Conant, the press secretary for Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who might have been the busiest press person in a chaotic week. I asked him how the roll out for the Gang of Eight plan was going, given all the other news including the Boston bombing saga.
“We’re pleased,” he said. “This wasn’t the week anyone expected.” That is for certain. But he made the observation: “The immigration issue isn’t going away.” He stressed the multiple weeks ahead for hearings, debate, and amendments. He predicted a floor vote in June.
As for the Boston incident, he told me and then said in a written statement that, “Americans will reject any attempt to tie the losers responsible for the attacks in Boston with the millions of law-abiding immigrants currently living in the U.S. and those hoping to immigrate here in the future.”
Despite outrage from the usual exclusionists, the Rubio team sees the week going as well as they could have hoped. Conant told me, “The reception was very positive. There was broad and diverse support as you saw at the [Thursday] press conference.”
He noted that, as we spoke, conservative economist Doug Holtz-Eakin, president of the American Action Network, was testifying on the economic ramifications of the bill. In prepared remarks, Holtz-Eakin made the case that over the next 10 years, using dynamic scoring to account for the economic productivity of immigrants, U.S. gross domestic product would rise on average from 3 percent to 3.9 percent over 10 years.
Under questioning from Sen. Pat Leahy (D-Vt.), Holtz-Eakin stressed that “there is good reason to believe that immigration raises the wages of American workers, that they are complements to American workers. And I would emphasize two things: Number one, if we’re worried about the ability of low-skilled Americans to earn a wage, we should fix the low-skill problem. That’s the problem. It’s not immigration. It’s low skills. And if you think the competition begins when someone arrives in the United States, you’re mistaken. We are competing with those workers now, wherever they may be.”
On the economic impact of the Gang of Eight plan, Rubio sent a letter to David Addington at the Heritage Foundation anticipating a study that would show huge costs associated with his bill. Rubio cautioned against using “static scoring” to count the expenditures without looking at the economic. Heritage, a conservative think tank, always has believed in dynamic scoring when it comes to tax policy. It was a clever move to get to the right of Heritage, which has become home to the right-wing former South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint, whose opposition to virtually any immigration reform is well known. Sources tell Right Turn that the letter set off a healthy debate inside Heritage, which is, no doubt, precisely what the Rubio team intended.
As for other think tanks, the Rubio team was pleased to see Holtz-Eakin, the Cato Institute and others step up to the plate, although they insist there is no direct coordination. Conant went out of his way to note the conservative talk show hosts Hugh Hewitt, Michael Medved and Mike Huckabee, all of whom were particularly positive. He diplomatically noted that others were “open to learning more about it.” He also noted evangelicals, business people and fiscal conservatives have stepped up singling out Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform and Christian conservative leader Ralph Reed.
I asked which was the most effective pitch for the bill. He candidly said, “Different audiences care about different things. The Wall Street Journal came out [on economic growth]. On talk shows they want to hear about border security. On Spanish language [outlets] they care about a pathway to citizenship.” Indeed, he and the rest of the Rubio team are hoping that in that array of motives and segments of the electorate there will be enough votes to get the bill past exclusionists on the right and objections on the left.
Conant dismissed arguments that the bill was being rushed through. “Listen, we voted on gun stuff with only a couple hours’ notice,” he said to contrast the laborious schedule of hearings and debate set up for immigration reform. Before they rolled out the bill and the schedule, Conant said, “That argument had salience. It will lose salience as we go along.”
Perhaps the most undervalued part of the bill, Conant argued, has nothing to do with hot-button issues such as a pathway to citizenship or border security. Conant said, “It’s the modernization of our immigration system. We’re going from a family based to a merit based system. It will have a profound effect.”
The Rubio team has been in touch with some border governors. And, said Conant, “He has an aggressive travel schedule as it is.” They are looking to sprinkle in more opportunities to discuss his plan.
The Gang of 8 plan has a long road to go before a Senate vote. Then its fate in the GOP House is unknown. But in the meantime we’ve seen an almost unprecedented national campaign for major legislation run, not out of the White House, but from a freshman senator and his staff. If anyone had any questions, the Rubio team is ready for prime time.