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.”
“Rather than trying to pass everything in one big bill that a lot of people are going to find fault with, you pass things one at a time and find some consensus,” Conant told Sunshine State News in November 2012.
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.