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With Immigration Push, Rubio Puts a Lot on the Line

With Immigration Push, Rubio Puts a Lot on the Line

By Caitlin Huey-Burns - April 15, 2013

If you turned on the TV Sunday morning, chances are you saw Marco Rubio. 

The Florida Republican appeared on seven weekly news programs, including two Spanish-language shows, to promote an immigration reform bill he and a bipartisan group of senators are preparing to unveil this week.

The bookings were no accident. The conservative lawmaker’s massive pitch to the public signals he is ready to sink or swim with this legislation, which he and fellow “Gang of Eight” colleagues hope will lead to the first comprehensive immigration law in 27 years.

Though seven other senators are in this particular boat with Rubio, none has his eyes on the White House. With possible 2016 ambitions, the Sunshine State freshman has the most the gain, and the most to lose, with this push for reform.

Considered a linchpin to the legislation’s success, Rubio has been striking the delicate balance between confidence and caution: He stepped out with the likes of New York liberal Chuck Schumer to introduce a framework but he has also called for an open process, encouraging weeks of public committee hearings and amendments from colleagues.

Rubio’s caution might have irked some lawmakers concerned about a bill drenched in procedure. But “regular order” is the name of the game on Capitol Hill these days, as failed backroom deals have elicited scorn. Rubio is a key broker here, but he’d prefer not to jam anything down anyone’s throat. And, taking a lesson from his mentor (and fellow ambitious Floridian) Jeb Bush, Rubio has seen how quickly the ground can shift: Thanks to the perils of book publishing, and having one’s views immortalized in print, Bush got into hot water last month for opposing a pathway to citizenship after having once supported it.

On Sunday, the son of Cuban immigrants who campaigned against “blanket amnesty” in his U.S. Senate bid sought to portray the Gang of Eight bill as credible to mainstream Americans.

“What we have now isn't good for anybody," Rubio said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” "What we have in place today, the status quo, is horrible for America." He characterized the current immigration system as “de facto amnesty” that only benefits traffickers and people hiring illegal laborers. Amnesty is forgiveness of something, he said, “and there will be consequences for having violated the laws” under his legislation.

Absent from Rubio’s remarks on the English-language shows was the word “citizenship,” an apparent attempt to allay concerns about a special path for the undocumented -- and to avoid a term that makes many on the right cringe. The proposed law would allow “people access to the legal immigration system,” he told ABC’s “This Week.” “The only thing you get is the chance to apply for a green card, like everybody else does.”

Rubio said those in the country illegally could apply for legal status six months after the law’s implementation. Applicants would have to pay a fee and a fine, pay back taxes and “prove that you are not a public charge.” They will not qualify for any federal benefits, he said, swatting back charges in a Heritage Foundation study of the proposal’s costs. Then, after an anticipated 10-year process takes place to declare the U.S.-Mexico border secure, put in place an entry-exit system for tracking visas, and implement E-Verify (a workplace background check program), immigrants can apply for a green card.

It is no secret that Rubio’s biggest hurdle is selling the bill to conservatives skeptical of amnesty. Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions said on “This Week” that he isn’t convinced his colleague’s proposals are not tantamount to amnesty. And if Senate conservatives don’t sign on to a final bill that carries Rubio’s stamp of approval, House Republicans will almost surely leave the legislation out in the cold.

For that reason, Rubio has been slowly trying to break them in. He sought to defang the citizenship provision early on by hitting the conservative talk show circuit. “What you are doing is admirable and noteworthy,” Rush Limbaugh told him in January. At the opposite end of the spectrum, Schumer praised Rubio as a “Daniel in the lion’s den” by taking up the politically challenging issue -- which could be used in attack ads if this all goes awry (or even if it doesn’t).

The other Republicans in the Senate group are also important to the bill’s chances. Lindsey Graham says if he can sell it in his home state of South Carolina, he can sell it anywhere; for decades, John McCain has shown legislative gumption on the issue (including pushing a failed 2007 bill) and learned the cost of losing the Latino vote in his 2008 presidential bid; and Arizona freshman Jeff Flake, McCain’s border-state colleague, is a libertarian who joined the Senate in January from the House.

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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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