Rubio and Immigration Reform: Will He Stick or Scoot?

The question on many Washington minds is whether Sen. Marco Rubio really wants an immigration reform bill to pass.

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Kevin Lamarque / REUTERS

Senator Marco Rubio of Florida speaks at CPAC at National Harbor, Maryland March 14, 2013.

The Senate’s bipartisan Gang of Eight may release an immigration reform bill this week, but the question on many Washington minds is whether Marco Rubio, the most conservative member of the gang, really wants the legislation to pass. He has defied his Tea Party base by backing reform, including a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, but he has also demanded hearings, “triggers,” and a slew of other conditions he insists must be met for him to support the final bill. He’s still on the reform bus, but he’s left himself a Florida Turnpike worth of exit ramps.

My cover story about Rubio’s personal and political journey on immigration issues anticipated this drama over the senator’s “impeccably nuanced positions.” He is a child of Cuban immigrants—his grandfather was undocumented for awhile, and I quoted his mother begging him not to harm the undocumented of today—but he is also a child of the conservative movement that sunk immigration reform in 2007. He’s clearly thinking about the White House in 2016, and it’s not yet clear whether helping to broker a bipartisan immigration deal will help his candidacy in a party that hates President Obama but needs Hispanics. As I wrote two months ago: “This shrewd political operator will have to decide how far he’s willing to bend to get a deal done with Obama, or whether he’s content just to get credit for trying.”

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The bill’s opponents seem convinced that Rubio’s tough-talk demands—tight border security and an employment verification system first, an arduous path to citizenship later, and no law without a thorough and deliberate process—are just bones he’s throwing to his supporters on the right before his inevitable support for amnesty. By contrast, immigration advocates are clearly afraid that he intends to scuttle reform and then blame Obama and Big Labor for moving the bill too far to the left.

I think he’s keeping his options open. He’s a political animal. He’d like to support a bill, but it will depend what the bill looks like and what the politics look like. To understand his options, it helps to think about the potential outcomes:

1) Supporting a Bill That Passes. Rubio is a real-deal political talent, but as a city councilor, state legislator and now U.S. senator, he’s got a thin legislative record. Now he’s probably the most important player working on a big bipartisan deal. Brokering a reform bill that helped fix the nation’s immigration problems and the GOP’s Latino problems would be a huge achievement for a freshman. It could disappoint grass-roots conservatives who tend to dominate Republican primaries, but so far Rubio has gotten sympathetic hearings from Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and other talkers who helped rally the base against reform in the past. And GOP elites are desperate to get the immigration issue off the table; they’ll be deeply grateful to Rubio if he can help make that happen.

2) Opposing a Bill That Fails. The media love bipartisan gangs, but even if the Senate negotiators reach a consensus, it’s not clear that immigration reform, especially a path to citizenship, can pass the Republican-controlled House. So Rubio might be tempted to get off the legislative train before it derails, and perhaps even get credit for killing the bill. He could always argue that Obama was too squishy on enforcement, or too union-friendly on guest workers, or whatever; he’d be a hero to the base for standing up to the sharia socialist, and he could still get some mainstream-media credit for supporting reform as long as he did. Advocates warn that if Rubio scuttles the bill, he’ll become as unpopular with non-Cuban Hispanics as Mitt Romney was, but that doesn’t seem plausible. If 2016 rolls around without reform, Republican elites will still be desperate to solve their problems with Hispanic voters; wouldn’t a bilingual Hispanic-American who took 55% of the Hispanic vote in a swing state be an attractive nominee?

3) Supporting a Bill That Fails. Rubio may be the key senator when it comes to reform, but he’d rather not help pass a bill that stalls in the House. He’d get no achievement to put on his resume, he’d look impotent, and he’d be linked to an Obama initiative rejected by the Republican base. This could conceivably make him an even more attractive candidate for 2016, when the problem would still be lingering and Republican elites would be even more desperate for a pro-reform, Hispanic-friendly nominee. But it would be embarrassing. Rubio doesn’t want the limb sawed off while he’s still on it.

4) Opposing a Bill That Passes. This would probably be the most humiliating political outcome for Rubio. He’d seem irrelevant. He’d look like he was in thrall to his right-wing base. Everyone would wonder what all the hype was about. Republicans would feel less desperate to appeal to Hispanics, and to the extent they still cared, they’d probably have other pro-reform candidates who could run in 2016. Since Rubio is nothing if not politically savvy, it’s safe to say that this is an unlikely outcome. He’s probably not going to come out against reform unless he’s sure it’s not going to happen.

Just writing this down, I was struck how the Beltway conventional wisdom—which holds that immigration is a no-lose proposition for Rubio—seems just about right. No matter what happens to reform, he’s showing some center-right bipartisan chops, while continuing to reach out to partisan Republican leaders. No matter what happens to reform, in 2016 he’s going to be attractive to the conservative base as well as party elites who want to win over Hispanics. Face it: He’s a contender.

So what’s he going to do? If I had to guess, he’ll probably listen to his mom.

MORE: Immigration Reform: The Coming Fight Over The Low-Skilled Worker Visa