Senator Jeff Sessions (R., Ala.) waited patiently, holding up the wall, while Senator Marco Rubio (R., Fla.) held forth before the cameras, taking question after question.
Rubio had a new take to offer the press on the Gang of Eight’s bill to reform national immigration policy: Before, he had expressed concern only about securing Republican votes. Now, Democrats, too, he said, were revolting against the bill’s border-security provisions.
“What’s stymieing efforts in the Senate is not my comments. What’s stymieing efforts in the Senate is that we don’t have the votes to pass it, because too many members on both sides of the aisle do not believe it goes far enough on border security,” he said.
Minutes earlier, in the closed-door Republican Study Committee meeting, Senator Ted Cruz (Texas) had offered a different take. “This bill will sail through the Senate,” he told nearly one hundred assembled House conservatives in a sweltering, packed room in the basement of the Capitol, urging them emphatically to stop it in its tracks in the lower chamber.
Back at the cameras, Rubio finished, leaving the microphones for Sessions to give his response. But just as Sessions took the stage, a horde of reporters deserted him to follow the other Gang of Eight member leaving the meeting, Senator Jeff Flake (Ariz.).
The charismatic Rubio and his immigration gang are effortlessly driving the media coverage of the immigration bill, to the great frustration of the bill’s opponents, who are struggling to draw attention to what they consider the legislation’s deep and systemic flaws.
In past days, Rubio has said the bill doesn’t have enough votes and that he might even vote against it, prompting a frenzy of horse-race coverage that is drowning out most discussion about the substance of the bill. Opponents are convinced that Rubio’s remarks are a sideshow calculated to distract.
“It is no coincidence” that Rubio’s remarks about the bill’s not having enough votes were “made right after the leading GOP critics of the bill penned a Dear Colleague [letter] yesterday exhaustively detailing the scores of crippling flaws pervasive throughout the bill,” said an aide to one of the senators — Sessions, Cruz, Mike Lee (Utah) and Chuck Grassley (Iowa) — who wrote the letter.
Even his fellow Gang members seem to agree that Rubio is crying wolf.
“The bill’s gonna pass. The question is how many Republicans can we get. From my point of view, the goal’s half the conference. I think that’s very achievable,” Senator Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.) said Tuesday.
However, as the RSC meeting showed, the legislation faces a deeply hostile House GOP.
The meeting began with a panel of lawmakers offering short presentations. On the House side, Representatives Bob Goodlatte (Va.), Trey Gowdy (S.C.), Lamar Smith (Texas), Michael McCaul (Texas), and Raúl Labrador (Idaho) spoke. Senators Cruz, Rubio, Flake, Lee, and Rand Paul (Ky.) represented the Senate.
Several sources who were in the room described loud applause when criticisms of the Senate bill were expressed. When Rubio said that five Democrats may vote against the bill, someone shouted exuberantly, “I hope they do!”
The floor then opened up to questions from rank-and-file lawmakers. Of the 15 or so lawmakers who rose to ask questions of the assembled panel, none expressed support of the Senate bill.
Representative Louie Gohmert (Texas) asked “how,” given the recent IRS scandal, “could we possibly trust this administration to enforce the law?” — noting that under the Senate bill, legal status for illegal immigrants comes before the border is enforced.
Those in the meeting were struck by how little Rubio stuck up for his bill. There was “very little support for the Senate bill — even from Rubio,” a senior GOP aide said.
At one point, Rubio was asked why he became involved with the Gang of Eight in the first place. He said he joined to move the bill to the right, since the group would have passed a bill through the Senate whether or not he was a part of it.
Some in the meeting noted that if the bill would have easily passed with or without Rubio, his recent protestations that it can’t pass the Senate without fixes on border security didn’t carry much weight.
If anyone on the House side defended the Senate bill, it was Representative Raúl Labrador, whom several people described as being annoyed at all of the criticisms that were being hurled at Rubio and Flake. At one point, Labrador argued that an “enforcement-only” bill could never pass the Senate floor, something that Rubio and Flake echoed.
Lee responded passionately: “I do not know one single senator, nor do I know one single representative who would say we don’t need to bolster border security.” His point was not that Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) would bring up such a bill, but that the GOP was right politically to demand border security.
Having endured the storm, Rubio went back outside to talk up amendments that will bolster the border-security provisions but without changing the fundamental structure of the bill. It’s a gambit that could easily work: The bill’s true future in the Senate is probably neither as dire as Rubio describes it nor as guaranteed as Cruz might think.
Opponents and advocates estimate that 10 to 20 Republican senators are on the fence. Politics, as much as policy, is driving their final calculus. What they need isn’t always some specific change but rather, as one top Republican described it, a “secret sauce” of political cover.
Will they get it? Next week will show.
— Jonathan Strong is a political reporter for National Review Online.