What Rubio Accomplished

In his 2010 Senate Republican primary campaign against Charlie Crist, Marco Rubio criticized the 1986 Simpson-Mazzoli act for granting amnesty to illegal aliens. He said: “If you grant amnesty, the message that you’re sending is that if you come in this country and stay here long enough, we will let you stay.” In a debate with Governor Crist, Rubio made his position clear. Just putting someone at the back of the line wasn’t enough of a reason to grant amnesty. “If you grant amnesty,” he said, “in any form, whether it’s back of the line or so forth, you will destroy any chance we will ever have of having a legal immigration system that works here in America.”

It was because of strong statements like those, which he had made many times over the years, that conservative opposition to the Senate’s immigration reform bill was muted in its early days. As The New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza wrote, Senator Schumer was “delighted to have a Tea Party conservative who could sell an immigration bill to the right.” Rubio’s insistence that there will be no amnesty before border security measures were verifiably in place kept right-wing voices who ultimately opposed the bill quiet while the “Gang of Eight” drafted the actual bill.

When all was said and done, the assurances provided by the senator to the right-wing base were empty ones. Border Security determinations were left up to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano. That is the same Secretary Napolitano who, in an April 23, 2010 Senate hearing, told Sen. Lindsey Graham that “[the border] is as secure now as it has ever been.” This doesn’t inspire confidence that she would ever find that the border isn’t secure. Yet Rubio still signed off on this, which damaged his standing with the conservative movement.

While Rubio ultimately did betray his base, the feelings they have toward him tend to be more disappointment than anger, compared to other “Gang of Eight” members, like Senators McCain and Graham, who stir up feelings of animosity, or dislike. The reason for this is that while Rubio made an effort (or at least the appearance of one) to bring the base along by engaging the talk-radio hosts, McCain and Graham would take shots at them. In 2007, in a speech to La Raza, a radical pro-amnesty group, Graham, referring to GOP opposition to amnesty, said, “We’re gonna tell the bigots to shut up.” While Rubio sold out conservatives, he never disparaged them, which makes it harder for them to hate him for it.

The passage of the bill, albeit without the so called “triggers” promised by Rubio, has left the senator in an unenviable position. He has spent much of his political capital, and even changed his position on the issues addressed by a bill which Speaker of the House John Boehner has already said the house will not be taking up. Why Rubio would do all that for a bill that is DOA in the House is interesting. The question for Republicans who seek to fix the country’s broken immigration system however, becomes: What now?

Former Vice-Presidential Candidate and Congressman Paul Ryan has emerged as the “Rubio” of the House of Representatives in regard to their immigration proposal. But it won’t be as easy for Ryan, because conservatives know the adage “Fool me once — shame on you; fool me twice — shame on me.” Ryan, who is making virtually the same promises Rubio made, faces much more skepticism, despite his having a longer track record as a conservative legislator.

There is no question that the bill that comes out of the House will be infinitely better that the Senate bill was. Lawmakers such as Staten Island Republican Michael Grimm (who has a lower “conservative” score than some Democrats), has pointed to the billlack of verifiable triggers as the main sticking point. Seeing as the Democrats in the Senate voted for a bill that in theory increases border security, there is a simple strategy for House Republicans to pursue.

If the House passes a very similar bill to that which the Senate passed, with the only substantial difference being the verifiability of the border security benchmarks, it will put Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in a difficult position. If he refuses to take up the bill, Republicans will have his obstruction as proof that the border security measures written into the Senate bill were never meant to be real, and can make the devastating argument that the Senate was trying to fool the American people. And since the only real problem with the Senate bill is the lack of triggers, if a House bill like the one mentioned above is passed, conservatives will actually get the immigration reform bill promised to them by Rubio from the beginning.

And who knows? Maybe that’s been his plan all along.