The Washington Post

Marco Rubio’s big immigration gamble

Of the octet of members that comprise the "Gang of 8" pushing for a comprehensive immigration reform bill, none has more to gain (or lose) than Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio.

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio/Getty Images

Rubio is widely seen as a 2016 Republican presidential candidate and touching immigration, which remains a, well, touchy subject among the GOP rank and file, brings real risk with it.

"This is going to be tough for Republicans and the recidivist elements in our party," said GOP strategist Alex Castellanos, himself a Cuban-American."It will all be fine until there is a GOP primary, say for president, and one candidate breaks out as the anti-immigration candidate and appeals to GOP fears and not hopes."

In hopes of selling the idea to conservatives first, Rubio has been working the conservative pundit ranks on the issue for several weeks now, hoping to reverse George W. Bush's inability to sell his own immigration reform proposal to the party's talking heads. "What killed immigration reform when Bush '43 tried it was radio talk," said one veteran Republican strategist granted anonymity to speak candidly. "We don’t know if that will happen again, so far they’ve been subdued, but of course they have Obama to punch around."

On Monday Rubio appeared on Fox News Channel with Sean Hannity, telling the conservative talk show host that "it's a good moment to remind people and the country that the vast majority of conservatives favor legal immigration, and we don't have a legal immigration system that works right now. And our problem with illegal immigration is that it undermines legal immigration."

When pressed by Hannity on the idea that the 11 million (or more) people would be able to qualify for citizenship under the bill, which is by far the most controversial part of the proposed legislation, Rubio responded: "We're not trying to punish anybody here. It's not about that we're angry at immigrants. It's about the fact that we don't want this to ever happen again and we don't want to be unfair to the people that have done it in the right way."

(Hannity has said that Rubio's is the "most interesting proposal" he has heard to solve the immigration problem.)

Rubio allies insist that the issue was simply one that he -- a Cuban-American Senator who had repeatedly talked about the need for the party to rethink its stance on immigration -- could not avoid. Given that reality, they argue, Rubio sought to put himself in the center of the deliberations in hopes of dragging the Gang of 8 further to the ideological right in their quest for a bipartisan solution.

And, there's little question that Rubio's involvement gives other conservative Senators -- and even House Members -- cover if they want to be for the immigration compromise.

But, all of that doesn't mitigate the political risk for Rubio in getting so far forward on the issue. In a November Washington Post-ABC News poll, just more than one in three (37 percent) of self-identified Republicans supported a "path to citizenship" for those in the country illegally as compared to 71 percent of Democrats and 59 percent of Independents who favored some sort of path.

There's also a reason why Mitt Romney chose to back the idea of "self deportation" during the Republican primary process -- knowing that anything that smelled of a path to citizenship would be labeled "amnesty" by conservatives and confirm the idea that the former Massachusetts governor was insufficiently loyal to core principles.

Now, Rubio is not Romney. He came to national prominence as the face of the tea party movement in 2010 when he drove moderate (at best) Gov. Charlie Crist from the open Senate seat race in the Sunshine State.  There are few people in the party who question that Rubio is a committed conservative and, as a result, he may have a bit more room to roam.

"Senator Rubio's path to the Senate provides some inoculation to the downside risk  because he has 'street cred' with the coalition of the party that has the greatest concern about this issue," said Rob Jesmer, former executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee and now a partner at FP1 Strategies.

What Rubio is clearly hoping for is to be seen among the GOP smart set as the sort of Republican who is able to take on big challenges and work across the aisle with Democrats all while -- and this is critically important to his political future -- retaining his core conservative principles.

It's a delicate balancing act but one that Rubio can't go back on now that he has stepped out on the high wire. Slip and there is no political net below to catch him.  Make it to the other side and his cache within the party -- already high -- will soar.

"If Rubio helps lead us into sanity on the issue it would be great for him and very good for the GOP," said Ed Rogers, a Republican lobbyist and longtime operative. "We need a savior on immigration."

Read more from Washington Post Politics:

Obama must walk fine line on immigration

Pitfalls ahead for Senate immigration plan

NRA's LaPierre to attack universal background checks

Why the assault weapons ban is likely going nowhere

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.

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