Senator Marco Rubio (R., Fla.) has undergone what appears to be a curious conversion on the issue of immigration reform. After working for months to craft, pitch, and pass a comprehensive bill in the Senate, Rubio now thinks that a step-by-step approach is a more “realistic” option, and has joined the chorus of conservatives warning against the potential pitfalls of a conference committee.
It’s being called a flip-flop, but Rubio’s supporters point out that he has always favored such a plan. They are right, to a degree. Indeed, if one ignores Rubio’s support for, and co-authorship of, the Gang of Eight comprehensive-reform legislation, he has been remarkably consistent in his preference for a step-by-step approach to immigration reform.
Shortly after the 2012 election, as Rubio was renewing his efforts to craft a Republican alternative to the DREAM Act — a bill to give citizenship to younger immigrants brought to the country illegally as children — spokesman Alex Conant said the senator’s preference was to tackle immigration reform “not comprehensively, but sequentially.”
At a Politico breakfast last December, Rubio said the issue “needs to be dealt with comprehensively but not in a comprehensive bill — in a comprehensive package of bills,” a sentiment he echoed a month later in a wide-ranging interview with the Wall Street Journal:
In terms of legislative strategy, Mr. Rubio says he would want to see “a comprehensive package of bills” — maybe four or five as opposed to one omnibus — move through Congress concurrently. He says other experience with “comprehensive” reform (ObamaCare, the recent debt deal) shows how bad policy easily sneaks into big bills. It would also offer a tempting big target for opponents. Other reformers think that only a comprehensive bill can address the toughest issues. “It’s not a line in the sand for me,” replies Mr. Rubio.
Of course, this appeared to represent a departure from the position Rubio touted as a Senate candidate in 2010. “We’ve got to secure the borders in our existing system first before we can even begin to have a conversation about the other elements of immigration,” he said at the time, also arguing that “‘earned path to citizenship’ is basically code for amnesty.”
As it turned out, a comprehensive proposal was something of a “line in the sand” for Senator Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) and his Democratic colleagues as well as for President Obama. So Rubio chose to give ground not only on his border-security-first position, but also on his preference for a step-by-step approach. “That’s not the direction the Senate was headed,” he told CNN’s Candy Crowley in April when asked about critics such as Senator Mike Lee (R., Utah) who were calling for a series of individual immigration bills. “So I made a decision to try to influence the direction we were headed.”
Rubio argued that the Gang of Eight had managed to keep the various aspects of immigration reform “separate from each other” during negotiations so that the end product would be “defensible.” He vowed that he would try to persuade conservatives that “leaving things the way they are now is much worse than approaching it the way we’ve outlined.”
Despite his considerable efforts, the conservative base remained deeply skeptical, and Rubio began to adjust his message, emphasizing the need for increased border-security measures.
In early May, as the Senate Judiciary Committee was preparing to mark up the Gang of Eight bill, Rubio insisted that the legislation “will have to be improved” in order to become law. The border-security provisions especially would have to be strengthened, he reemphasized. The committee would ultimately pass a handful of amendments modestly supportive of the border-security section of the bill, while rejecting those that would have significantly enhanced border-security and immigration enforcement.
In June, after the Gang of Eight legislation was passed out of committee, Rubio went so far as to suggest that he would vote against the bill he helped write unless its border-security provisions were strengthened and changes made to roll back the secretary of Homeland Security’s considerable authority to decide how to implement the law. He urged Republican opponents to get involved in the amendment process.
Enter John Cornyn (R., Texas), the minority whip, who offered an amendment that would have established, in place of the existing “trigger,” a hard “trigger” of security benchmarks that would have to be met before illegal immigrants could obtain legal status. As written, the bill would have merely required that the Homeland Security secretary submit a plan to secure the border before legal status was granted.
The Cornyn amendment was another line in the sand for Democrats, which is why Rubio’s Gang of Eight colleagues were so annoyed when he threw his support behind it. As a knowledgeable source told the Washington Post, “The [Gang of Eight] Senators told Rubio that the Cornyn amendment is going nowhere, and the sooner that is clear to everyone, the more quickly we can move to other, more acceptable proposals.”
Rubio ultimately voted for the Cornyn amendment, which was defeated on the Senate floor — but that fact did not alter his support for the final version of the legislation. The Gang of Eight bill passed on June 27 with the backing of 14 Republicans and every single Democrat. On the eve of the vote, Rubio made a direct appeal to his conservative critics. “I realize that in the end, many of my fellow conservatives will still not be able to support this reform,” he said on the Senate floor. “But I hope you will understand that I honestly believe it is the right thing for our country.”
Since the bill’s passage, Rubio has been relatively silent on the issue of immigration reform. In August, he defended his involvement with the Gang of Eight and warned that if Congress failed to act on immigration reform, President Obama could act unilaterally to legalize the majority of illegal immigrants living in the country. Rubio’s decision to join the Gang of Eight was simply an effort to “start the conversation to at least address some of these issues,” he said during an interview with a Florida radio station. “It only gets worse as time goes on.”
More recently, Rubio has continued to criticize Obama, saying the president’s actions have “undermined” the cause of immigration reform and that conservative skeptics have “valid” reasons not to trust the administration. Last week, nearly four months to the day after casting his vote for the Gang of Eight bill, Rubio reiterated his belief that “a series of sequential, individual bills is the best way, the ideal way to reform our immigration system.” Lawmakers should focus their energy on the aspects of immigration reform that they agree on, he argued.
Of course, many conservative opponents of the Gang of Eight have been saying that all along.
— Andrew Stiles is a political reporter for National Review Online.