Marco Rubio's Immigration Gamble

Rubio at the 2013 Free State Foundation’s annual Telecom Policy Conference Photograph by Brooks Kraft/Corbis

After spending weeks warning his Senate colleagues against moving too quickly, Senator Marco Rubio has gone on a media blitz to promote the immigration reform package that’s expected to be proposed in the Senate tomorrow. Appearing on seven separate interviews on cable news shows Sunday, the Florida Republican is once again putting himself forward as the face of the deal.

This has been seen as the biggest gamble of Rubio’s ‘boy wonder’ political career to date. He’s gotten squarely in line with Democrats who have always had the upper hand in the negotiations, designating himself the point person to woo fellow lawmakers who fear that voting to give green cards to those who came to the U.S. illegally could sink their careers. If things blow up in the party, Rubio will take the flak.

While immigration reform seems likely to pass in the Senate, Rubio faces a greater challenge in persuading fellow Republicans in the more conservative House of Representatives. The rift between the House and Senate is still deep. Last week, Florida Congressman Mario Diaz-Balart, who is leading the House Republican effort to draft companion legislation to the Senate’s bill, announced that his team was “95 percent close” to finishing. But what little Diaz-Balart described of the draft already makes it seem untenable for Democrats. He said that the legislation offers “no amnesty” for lawbreakers. That suggests that the House bill doesn’t include a shot at citizenship for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S.. Even if the bill winds up including a path to citizenship, GOP lawmakers may make it  too punitive for Democrats to accept. A number of House members are already starting to become more vocal in their opposition to the Senate plan.

Yet the segment of the GOP that opposes any type of immigration reform is increasingly out of step with public opinion. More important for Rubio, these views are also increasingly out of step with those of Republican voters. A March poll by the Pew Research Center found for the first time that most Republicans—64 percent—believe that undocumented immigrants should be allowed to stay in the United States. If there was once danger for Rubio and other GOP immigration reformers in ignoring activists in party’s right wing, there’s now more to lose in listening to them.

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