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The two faces of Marco Rubio

Marco Rubio

Marco Rubio

The two faces of Marco Rubio

The Florida senator is trying to be both a high-level negotiator and a disappointed populist. With the immigration bill, he’ll eventually have to choose.

By Rebecca Kaplan

In a radio interview Tuesday with conservative talk-show host Hugh Hewitt, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., drew a line in the sand. Asked whether he would vote for the Senate’s immigration overhaul if certain border-security provisions were not adopted, he said no. “If those amendments don’t pass, then I think we’ve got a bill that isn’t going to become law, and I think we’re wasting our time,” he said.

Rubio hardly sounded like one of the senators who helped craft the immigration-reform package behind closed doors. He was, after all, brought into the “Gang of Eight” to help sell, not sink, the legislation with conservative lawmakers. Instead, he sounded like Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, who got his tech-friendly amendments included during a markup because he was seen as the only Republican on the Judiciary Committee who might vote for the legislation.

This is how Rubio’s immigration dance has gone—and will likely continue to go until the final vote on the Senate floor. Rubio is playing both the ultimate insider’s game (crafting a major piece of legislation with a small group of lawmakers) and the ultimate outsider’s game (trying to build public pressure to sway the legislation in a more conservative direction). On the issue of immigration, he’s trying to be just a little bit pregnant. “I hope he knows what he’s doing,” says Jim Manley, a former aide to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., “because he’s playing a very dangerous game with immense implications not only toward the immigration bill but for his 2016 presidential chances as well.”

The other members of the Gang of Eight may not care about Rubio’s presidential ambitions, but since those ambitions appear to have helped keep him involved, they’ve given him space. Despite Rubio’s public kvetching about the bill (he said again Monday that it doesn’t have the 60 votes it needs to pass), his rhetorical meandering has drawn no public or private complaints from his fellow bill writers or their aides. They know he’s their best, if not only, shot at picking up conservative votes in the Senate and House—and wooing conservative media that influence the base. If a handful of Republican senators ultimately vote for the bill, it’s not going to be because Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., won them over.

Rubio knows it, too. “One of the reasons why I was asked to even join this effort is to help bring Republicans on board, and that’s what I’m trying to do,” he told reporters Wednesday after briefing members of the Republican Study Committee on the bill and the ways he thinks it should be improved. Asked if he had any problem with Rubio criticizing a bill he had already signed onto, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., told National Journal, “He’s done a great job selling this to the conservative talk-show hosts and the conservative community.”

And Rubio seems, at least for the moment, to be adhering to principles the gang laid out to guide the bill. Yes, he favors an amendment that would task Congress, not the Homeland Security Department, with writing the plan to secure the U.S.-Mexico border. But he hasn’t insisted that Congress vote to certify that the border has been secured before the green-card process for formerly illegal immigrants can begin. “We welcome amendments that’ll improve the bill and broaden support for the bill, provided it doesn’t get at our core principles, and Marco Rubio is very aware of our core principles. I talk to him every day,” Schumer said diplomatically. He was remarkably cheerful when he spoke to reporters Tuesday in spite of the fact that Rubio had just told Fox & Friends that the bill didn’t have the votes to pass.

Rubio’s White House ambitions complicate his posture. His best-case scenario is to be seen as the critical negotiator who pulled the bill rightward to secure Republican votes for bipartisan passage. He certainly can’t be seen as Schumer’s lapdog, a charge that some of the bill’s opponents are trying to level against him. But almost no one believes that Rubio’s public criticism means he’s walking away from the bill, because a failed reform effort could potentially hurt him as much as a centrist one. “Is it in his interest to demand changes that become impossible for the Democrats to accept in a way that blows up the bill?” asks Frank Sharry, the executive director of America’s Voice, a group that supports the bill. “No. The only way out is to be the guy that helps produce a bill, landmark legislation, that saves the Republican Party from itself.”

Rubio has a history of “walking carefully on critical issues,” says Susan MacManus, a political-science professor at the University of South Florida. She points to Rubio’s delicate embrace of populist tea-party groups in Florida that helped propel his come-from-behind victory during the 2010 election, even though he had been speaker of the Florida House. At the same time, she says, “He was wary of becoming too embedded into something which clearly had a strong ideological bent to it.”

Now some of those same groups that got him elected are seething at his work on immigration reform, which they see as a repeat of the Affordable Care Act, at least in size and scope. “We’re not going to support any candidate for any office who’s in favor of this bill, and that’s nonnegotiable,” says John Long, chairman of the Tea Party of Florida. “We’ve tried to communicate that to him, but his head is on Pennsylvania Avenue. It’s not on Main Street anymore.” Rubio’s insider-outsider split on immigration is part of the theater that comes with a successful political career.

     This article appears in the June 8, 2013, edition of National Journal as In & Out.

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