It’s 4:20 p.m. on a dreary Monday and Marco Rubio is pacing beside his desk, a black handset pressed to his ear. He’s on the phone with conservative talk-radio host Michael Medved. A few minutes earlier, he was on an online radio program. After he finishes with Medved, he’ll call Newsmax, a conservative news website. On Tuesday, he’ll dial Rush Limbaugh.
Between calls, Rubio monitors Twitter on his laptop and phone and keeps an eye on C-SPAN, which is broadcasting Senate floor speeches. He occasionally sips from a bottle of mineral water. “Who’s next?” Rubio asks, turning toward his press aides, Alex Conant and Brooke Sammon.
Such calls are now part of Rubio’s daily routine. In the morning and afternoon, he fulfills his Senate duties. He participates in committee meetings and huddles with his staffers. But at twilight, Rubio returns here, to his spacious, gold-carpeted office in the Hart Senate Office Building, for long sessions of wooing conservatives.
As the debate over immigration reform unfolds, Rubio has become the linchpin for its success. He is the only member of the Senate’s bipartisan working group on immigration who is beloved by most conservatives. He is the rare Republican who can participate in a Senate “gang” and still be cheered by a bevy of right-wing commentators.
But if these calls are any indication, the first-term Florida senator is aware that his popularity and power are fragile. Conservatives are open to his immigration plan, which would combine tougher border enforcement with new rules for undocumented workers, but they remain generally wary of comprehensive immigration reform.
Rubio’s response to the Right’s entrenched hesitation has been enthusiastic engagement. As he talks to Medved and blogger Ed Morrissey, he shares their skepticism about how such a plan would be implemented. He assures them that he’s simply sharing “principles,” and that the legislation has not been finalized.
But Rubio doesn’t back down. This is his moment.
As the charismatic and articulate son of Cuban immigrants who rose to prominence as a tea-party ally, Rubio has a singular place in the conservative firmament, and he could likely hold onto that status for years with little effort. At 41 years old, he is already considered a leading presidential contender.
Rubio, however, doesn’t just want to be a conservative darling and quietly wait to be anointed the Republican nominee in a few years. He wants to pass legislation. He doesn’t mind a challenge. He didn’t run for the Senate to merely be a backbencher by day and a Fox News talking head by night.
You sense this desire from the urgency in his voice, and from his office decorations. Mementos from congressional history cover his walls. By the couch, there are framed news clips of the Washington Post from July 1981, with a picture of Jack Kemp and Ronald Reagan after they passed their famous tax cut. Behind his desk hangs a copy of Arnold Friberg’s painting, The Prayer at Valley Forge, which shows George Washington kneeling before battle.
The difference between Rubio’s approach and that of most ambitious senators sponsoring controversial bills is his strategy. Rubio, a former speaker of the Florida state assembly, is a veteran of legislative fights and backroom dealings, even though many Beltway pundits know him only as a Republican media sensation. He is also a pro at soothing conservatives’ anxiety, since he speaks their language.
Together, those talents may be the factor ensuring passage of a bill. For the past decade, Republicans and Democrats have grappled with immigration reform, only to be stymied. Rubio’s involvement signals a shift from the previous dynamics of the debate, which usually saw moderate Republicans working with liberal Democrats. Now, it’s a conservative Republican cautiously leading the charge.
As we chat following his radio marathon, Rubio is optimistic, but he is unsure whether President Obama will cause problems as the plan slowly develops. The biggest cause for hope, he says, is the recognition by a majority of lawmakers that border enforcement needs to be drastically improved, and that Congress must figure out how to deal with the 11 million undocumented workers before that number climbs higher.
Rubio is pleased with how receptive many conservatives have been to having a civil conversation about immigration, both on the radio and on Capitol Hill. “To do this right, this can’t be about politics, but about a process,” he says. “I was working on this, then I started to work with the group. Our principles aligned, and when people agree with you, that’s an opportunity you take.”
Another reason for the Republican calm, beyond Rubio’s charm offensive, is his ability to turn concerns about granting amnesty into a conversation about preventing amnesty. Rubio argues the president and many Democrats would likely encourage fewer conditions if Republican leaders weren’t involved.
“What we have now is de facto amnesty,” Rubio says. “We have to find a way to solve that problem. We also have 11 million people who we have to deal with responsibly, but with compassion. They are going to be here for the rest of their lives, not paying taxes, unless we deal with this issue. I want to deal with this issue so we don’t have to deal with it again. That’s our obligation.”
Indeed, Rubio spends much of our conversation talking about the necessity of a “trigger,” or a requirement that border enforcement is improved before undocumented workers are given a path to citizenship. “We’ve got to have enforcement mechanisms,” he tells me. “I’m going to work hard to make sure the law that is written includes an enforceable trigger.”
Politically, such talk about a trigger is critical, since it balances out Rubio’s push for undocumented workers to be given temporary work visas. In interview after interview, Rubio leads and closes his case with his commitment to better enforcement. He talks about background checks, hefty fines, and enacting stricter requirements for employers.
Conservatives have not yet revolted, though there is grumbling on many conservative websites and on the radio. Rubio says he’ll keep reaching out, asking his fellow Republicans and conservatives to help him shape an unavoidable national debate. “Buy-in is important,” he says. “You can’t come up with something behind closed doors and then expect people to accept it.”
Of course, even if Rubio wins over many conservatives, the president could still upend the Senate’s proposal. “This is going to take some time,” he admits. “I would caution against exuberance. But things are positive.”
With that, the phone rings, and he’s off again.
— Robert Costa is National Review’s Washington editor.
editor’s note: This article has been amended since its initial publication.