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With Immigration Push, Rubio Puts a Lot on the Line

By Caitlin Huey-Burns - April 15, 2013

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But Rubio is the Latino star of a party trying to learn how to win elections again. Even Democrats agree it would be difficult to move an immigration bill through the Senate (and certainly through the House) without him.

On Sunday, Rubio sought to distance himself from two people who might have played a polarizing role in this debate. He noted that President Obama doesn’t agree border enforcement should be a trigger for the legalization process; he also said immigration laws should not make life so unbearable for undocumented people that they deport themselves, thus dismissing a proposal floated by Mitt Romney, who won just 28 percent of the Latino vote last year.

Rubio and the other Republican members of the immigration group were supposed to brief party colleagues last week, but the debate on gun laws consumed the conversation at the conference’s weekly policy meetings. They will do that this week instead, and eyes will be on Rubio.

Walking into one GOP policy lunch last week, Flake told reporters that he and fellow Gang of Eight members will try to convince skeptics with “charm, wit and everything I don’t possess but Marco Rubio does.”

Beyond the Hill, the Florida senator will still need conservatives in his pocket should he run in 2016. “Their crush on him has to be there in order for his run to be viable,” said Democratic strategist Maria Cardona, who lauded Rubio’s efforts on immigration and the political savvy he’s shown. “He needs to seem like he is working hard to get this done . . . in a way that is seen as palatable but also helpful. No one is for amnesty, not even Democrats, not even Latinos. But a pathway too onerous and difficult may discourage stakeholders.

While actual legislative language has yet to be revealed, the bill will include a 13-year timeline for the 11 million people living in the country illegally to obtain a green card and apply for citizenship; it will also mandate heightened border security measures and new laws for guest-worker visas.

The Senate Judiciary Committee is expected to take up the bill later this month. Rubio wants several weeks of debate, and may even hold his own hearings on the matter

The rising GOP star has raised eyebrows by standing out from the gang recently. Earlier this month, as colleagues crooned about the progress of the bill on Sunday news shows, Rubio issued a statement warning they were not yet close to legislation. He called for a longer committee procedure, prompting some editorialists to wonder if Rubio was walking away.

Democrats and Republicans alike took Rubio’s television appearances Sunday to mean he is in for the long haul. But Rubio hasn’t committed to voting with the Gang of Eight on every amendment that comes to the floor, underscoring the narrow line he will likely walk throughout the legislative process. Rubio said Sunday he would stand against poison pill amendments but would also walk away if the final bill violated his principles.

Conservative Latino activists extol that approach. “Marco has a lot of people he’s got to talk to about this and has still got to convince senators and the American public that this is a starting point,” said Jennifer Korn, executive director of the Hispanic Leadership Network. “It’s not the end point.”

Rubio also used his Sunday media blitz to hone a conservative message for a party rebranding itself. “We are the party of upward mobility; we are not the party of the people who have made it,” he told “Meet the Press.” The GOP is the party “of people who are trying to make it.”

But, not surprisingly, he denied any connection between working on a major policy initiative and his possible presidential ambitions. When asked about his political calculations regarding the bill, Rubio told CNN’s Candy Crowley he hadn’t thought about that.

“Seriously, Senator?” she asked.

“I have a job,” he replied. “My belief has always been that if I do my job and I do my job well, I'll have options and opportunities in the future to do things -- whether it's run for re-election, run for something else or give someone else a chance at public service. And that's how I view this issue." 

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Caitlin Huey-Burns is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at chueyburns@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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