Florida Senator Marco Rubio is trying to save the U.S. immigration bill he helped write, seeking to placate Republican opponents without splintering a bipartisan coalition behind it.
The son of Cuban immigrants and a prospective 2016 presidential nominee has much to gain from enactment of the most significant revision of U.S. immigration laws in almost three decades. The 42-year-old first-term Republican is pressing Senate colleagues to enhance border security in the bill, both to win acceptance in the Senate this month and to ease stiffer resistance in the Republican-run House.
A co-author of the measure, Rubio warns that it can’t pass as written -- even he would have to vote against it.
“Rubio’s arguably putting his capital on the line,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice in Washington, an organization promoting revisions to immigration law. “He can sell conservatives like no one else. The question we’re all asking is can he legislate in a way that grows the vote without compromising the core elements.”
Rubio’s deal-making skills will be tested next week when the Senate starts debating the bill, the first congressional attempt to rewrite immigration law since a failed 2007 effort.
Rubio, among a group of senators who met privately with a faction of small-government House Republicans yesterday, told reporters at the Capitol that his party won’t accept the measure without a guarantee of stronger border security.
“The bill as currently structured isn’t going to pass in the House, and I think it’s going to struggle to pass in the Senate,” Rubio said. The bill’s authors “certainly are going to have to do more than what’s in the bill now in order to get the votes necessary to pass a law,” he said.
The Senate measure seeks to balance a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. -- a provision demanded by Democrats -- with enough border security to satisfy Republicans.
“We don’t see this bill in either house moving forward or ever coming to a law and agreement without a very, very solid rock-ribbed border security aspect to it,” Representative John Fleming, a Louisiana Republican, told reporters yesterday.
The Senate measure includes $4.5 billion for tighter border security. It requires 100 percent surveillance and a 90 percent apprehension rate along the U.S.-Mexico border before any undocumented immigrant already in the U.S. could qualify for legal permanent residency. Then, it would take more than a decade to qualify for citizenship.
Republicans in both chambers say the bill must go further, and Rubio is trying to navigate that. As one of the group of eight Republicans and Democrats who wrote the measure, which has been approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee, Rubio is balancing Democrats’ demands with Republican opposition.
“It’s very simple: If people want immigration reform, we’re going to have to improve the border-security elements of the bill, and we’ll have to make people confident that what we’re doing is enough,” Rubio said. “That’s what I’m going to focus on.”
Another Republican bill sponsor, Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, said he was convinced that Rubio was “committed to immigration reform.”
“He’s looking for ways to make it better and grow the vote, absolutely, and enhancing border security is a way to do that on the Republican side,” Graham said.
Sharry cautioned that Rubio can’t go too far as he works with Republicans to meet their demands. He said that changes to the border security benchmarks that trigger elements of the citizenship path would be a deal-breaker.
“I think it’s widely accepted that to grow the vote in the Senate, there’s likely to be a border security amendment that attracts a group of Republicans,” Sharry said. “Senator Rubio is very aware of where the trip wires are in the Gang of Eight agreement, and I’m optimistic that he’s going to respect those.”
Graham similarly predicted that a proposal to alter the citizenship triggers would be going too far.
“If you change the trigger, it would probably fall apart,” he said. “Having unachievable triggers is not going to be acceptable to our Democratic colleagues.”
Some changes -- such as one Senator John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, proposes to install a new set of border security benchmarks that must be achieved before undocumented immigrants could become citizens -- could spur enough resistance from Democrats to scuttle the bill.
Although not a member of the Judiciary Committee, Rubio weighed in publicly during the panel’s consideration of the measure last month, at times breaking with other members of the bipartisan group that wrote it to endorse Republican proposals aimed at strengthening border security.
Rubio spokesman Alex Conant said the senator was “disappointed” when the panel rejected a proposal from Alabama Republican Jeff Sessions to require fingerprinting or other biometric checks at U.S. points of exit before undocumented immigrants could be granted green cards. The two Republican and two Democratic members of the eight-senator group that wrote the bill opposed Sessions’s amendment.
Rubio also worked behind the scenes to help craft an amendment, offered by Cornyn, that required at least $1 billion be spent on fencing at the U.S.-Mexico border.
In the House, a bipartisan group of lawmakers had reached agreement on several parts of their plan, which members of the group have said they plan to unveil this month. Still, Representative Raul Labrador, an Idaho Republican and occasional spokesman for the group, announced yesterday that he is quitting the negotiations.
While Senate leaders want to pass a bill by July 4, House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, hasn’t made floor consideration a priority.
Representative Jim Costa, a California Democrat, said today that the window for the House to tackle immigration would close in the next several months.
“I’m fearful that if we don’t act by the August recess that window of opportunity is going to be slipping away,” Costa said at a Bloomberg Government breakfast. “That’s not to say we couldn’t take action in September and October because we can, but boy, you get past October, nothing’s going to happen next year, I’m confident of that.”
Even with some of the improvements Rubio is discussing, the Senate bill has a “long way to go from the House perspective,” said Representative Bob Goodlatte of Virginia, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. The House will take a “step-by-step” approach to immigration law instead of considering a comprehensive measure, he said.
Many House Republicans -- including Goodlatte, Fleming and South Carolina’s Trey Gowdy, another senior member of the judiciary panel -- remain reluctant to support a path to citizenship for the undocumented. They say they want to first see what Fleming calls “verifiable” border security.
“When you put amnesty ahead of border security, all you get is a bigger problem,” Fleming said.
For now, Republicans remain supportive of Rubio’s attempts to negotiate an agreement both parties can accept. Labrador said “not a single” House Republican told Rubio that he made a mistake signing onto the bipartisan immigration measure.
If Rubio ends up voting against the proposal, Labrador said, “it shows that the Senate doesn’t have a good bill.”