Rush Limbaugh and Barack Obama (In That Order) Weigh In On Immigration

Two big things happened Tuesday with regards to immigration reform: President Barack Obama announced his plans, and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio called into Rush Limbaugh's radio program. The second event mattered more.

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Jason Reed / Reuters

President Barack Obama greets members of the audience after delivering remarks on immigration reform at Del Sol High School in Las Vegas, Jan. 29, 2013.

Two big things happened Tuesday with regards to immigration reform: President Barack Obama announced his plans at a Las Vegas high school, and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio called into Rush Limbaugh’s radio program. The second event mattered more.

Obama’s own proposal has been years in the making. After breaking his promise to push comprehensive immigration reform in his first term, he made a push in his second term a central theme of his campaign. His proposal, in the form of broad principles, is exactly what has long been expected: further strengthen borders, increase workplace enforcement, create a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, and increase routes of legal immigration. It differs from the outlines of the Senate proposal only in some details, like by offering same-sex couples the same rights to visas as heterosexual couples, and in not defining a set of enforcement triggers that would allow the path to citizenship to move forward. But Obama did make clear that his happiness over the bipartisan Senate process would not keep him from the spotlight. “Action must follow,” he said. “If congress is unable to move forward in a timely fashion, I will send up a bill of my own proposal and insist that they vote on it right away.”

(MORE: Will Immigration Reform Work This Time?)

The real action was on Limbaugh’s program. In the constellation of conservative radio talkers, Limbaugh has never been the most hawkish immigration reform opponent. He has mostly avoided the cultural demagoguery of hosts like Michael Savage, preferring to talk about the issue as an economic one, and a one of fairness for American workers. Nonetheless, Limbaugh was a vocal and influential opponent during the last Senate effort to pass a reform bill in 2007. If that opposition returns, with a Republican controlled House, the chances for the bill becoming law would be in serious question.  But in recent days, Limbaugh has been charting a delicate course, both expressing skepticism for the emerging plan, and embracing the bipartisan proposal.

“The president is out there saying, ‘I’m not gonna have any border security,’ ” Limbaugh said Tuesday. ” I mean, Obama’s gonna go to Vegas and make a speech and oppose the Senate bill’s border enforcement requirements.  Does that tell you that he’s interested in any kind of a deal, in any kind of a compromise?  It doesn’t say that to me.” Of course, none of this was accurate. But it was an important shift. Limbaugh, often a bellwether of conservative populist sentiment, placed himself on the side of a comprehensive bill that included a path to citizenship.

(MORE: The Economics of Immigration: Who Wins, Who Loses and Why)

Radio show host Limbaugh speaks at a forum hosted by the Heritage Foundation in Washington

Micah Walter / Reuters

That opens a clear route for compromise. That sense was confirmed by Limbaugh’s treatment of Rubio, an author of the bipartisan Senate plan. “What you are doing is admirable and noteworthy,” Limbaugh told Rubio. “You are recognizing reality. You’re trumpeting it, you’re shouting it.” And then the radio talk show host went on to continue his attack on Obama, as a duplicitous all-or-nothing politician who cares more about Democrats winning future elections than solving the immigration problem.

Comprehensive immigration reform is by no means a sure thing this year. The details–over enforcement triggers, esoteric provisions of how ObamaCare impacts immigrants, and rights for same sex partners–could still prevent a deal from being reached. But the broad outlines are now commonly understood, and standard bearers of opposition just five years ago are now on board. “The differences are dwindling,” Obama said in the high school in Las Vegas. “A broad consensus is emerging.” He was exaggerating only slightly.

MORE: Not Legal Not Leaving