Senator Marco Rubio said Tuesday that the Senate immigration bill does not have the 60 votes it needs to pass. Monday, he said “there will have to be improvements” to the legislation. He even threatened to walk away from the bill if the push for votes becomes a “horse trading” exercise.
Yesterday on Hugh Hewitt’s radio show, he made his boldest comments to date, saying that he would vote against his own bill if amendments to strengthen it don’t pass on the Senate floor next week.
But his fellow Gang of Eight members don’t seem alarmed.
“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 told reporters yesterday.
Majority leader Harry Reid has also said it will be “pretty easy” to pass the bill.
“Look, the bottom line is very simple, and that is we welcome amendments that will improve the bill and broaden support for the bill, provided it doesn’t get at our core principles. And Marco Rubio is very aware of our core principles. I talk to him every day,” Senator Chuck Schumer said.
Moreover, in interviews with those who are in the midst of this fight, no one told me he believes that Rubio is actually concerned the bill won’t pass the Senate or that he’s strongly considering walking away.
Graham, for instance, said Rubio understands the political implications of abandoning the bill would be disastrous, suggesting he’d never do so.
“If we’re not able to pass immigration reform in 2013 and it’s the Republican party’s fault, we’re done in 2016. So the idea that we can back away, and have no political consequences – to me, from an individual point of view, and from a party point of view, is fantasy,” he said.
Thus, there’s something of a high-stakes parlor game around Washington over trying to pin down what exactly Rubio’s play is, and why he’s saying what he’s saying.
One former Senate leadership aide, a Republican who is against the bill, said Rubio has made a practice of making such comments whenever the critics of the bill seem to be gaining momentum.
Rubio’s remarks about the need to improve the bill are like a “release valve” to reduce the pressure of mounting criticism, the source said.
Another theory is that Rubio is creating the “space” for border-security amendments, such as those from Texas senator John Cornyn, who might vote for the bill under the right circumstances.
Also in play is Senator Tom Coburn, who, as first reported by National Review Online, approached Rubio with concerns about the border-security provisions in the bill and is in discussions with him on the issue.
“There are 15 to 20 people who if it was tightened – and that’s the question of what defines ‘tightened,’ a tighter version of border security – that they would be supportive of the overall bill. But that they needed to see something more,” said Americans for Tax Reform President Grover Norquist, who is strongly pushing the bill. Opponents of the bill put that number closer to ten senators. The names that come up in conversations about that group include Senators Mike Crapo, Orrin Hatch, James Risch, Jerry Moran, Pat Toomey, Bob Corker, Lamar Alexander, Kelly Ayotte, Roger Wicker, and Thad Cochran. Rubio is said to be most concerned about Cornyn and Coburn’s support.
Senator Jeff Sessions, one of the leaders of Senate opposition to the bill, said something similar, but emphasized that he’s worried amendments could allow the bill to pass without significant improvements.
“My concern would be that just a few fig-leaf amendments that don’t fix the weaknesses in the bill would be seen as sufficient for passage,” Sessions said.
There’s a lot of fight still left ahead, and even Graham admitted it could easily fall apart if circumstances shift. But for now, most people watching expect the bill to pass.
Rubio spokesman Alex Conant declined to comment on the import of his boss’s remarks, saying “I think the senator’s statements speak for themselves.”