WASHINGTON — As a bipartisan Senate group builds momentum toward a comprehensive immigration reform bill this month, resistance is coming from an unexpected source: Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, a key member of the coalition.
Rubio, Fla., a rising GOP star, has been involved in extensive private negotiations with his fellow senators in the "Gang of Eight," but he has taken a cautious stance in public — highlighting his complicated position as a conservative tea party champion and potential 2016 presidential candidate who appeals to Latino voters.
On Sunday, two members of the working group, Sens. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., hailed a deal between business and labor to support the immigration bill, but Rubio sounded more circumspect.
"Reports that the bipartisan group of eight senators have agreed on a legislative proposal are premature," he said in a statement. Calling for a "healthy public debate" on whatever legislative proposal the Senate group puts forward, Rubio added that "this process cannot be rushed or done in secret."
Democrats and immigration advocates say Rubio is crucial to the process of overhauling the nation's laws in a way that offers a path to citizenship for 11 million illegal immigrants, and they are enthused by his participation in the Senate working group. They recognize the need for Rubio to move deliberately as he attempts to pull more-conservative factions into the fold on immigration.
But at the same time, many liberals are concerned about the mixed signals Rubio, whose parents immigrated from Cuba, has offered in public pronouncements and wonder whether he is looking for a potential escape hatch if the political heat becomes too great.
Rubio's carefully worded statement on Sunday came a day after he wrote a letter to Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who had expressed a desire to move quickly. Rubio's letter emphasized that the committee must hold hearings and not "rush to legislate." In February, Rubio declared that an immigration plan developed by the Obama administration and leaked to the media would be "dead on arrival," even though the proposal contained many provisions similar to those being developed by the senators.
"He's still a freshman, this is going to be prime-time legislation, and he's going to be targeted by the right and the left," said Frank Sharry, executive director of America's Voice, a leading immigration advocacy group. Sharry said he believes Rubio is in the talks for the long haul because if the immigration negotiations break down, the public will blame Republicans, not Obama.
"The crosscurrents are wicked," Sharry said. "But he's going to have to stand his ground and take some incoming fire and then be able to say, 'I procured a victory.' "
Rubio's fellow senators on the working group played down suggestions of a split within the coalition. On NBC's "Meet the Press," Schumer said that Rubio was "correctly pointing out that language hasn't been fully drafted. . . . He's been an active and strong participant — he's had a lot of input into the bill."
In the wake of the GOP's defeat at the ballot box in the fall, Rubio has been hailed among conservatives, including influential talk show host Rush Limbaugh and the Wall Street Journal editorial page, as a leader in the immigration debate. Rubio detailed his own proposals for a path to legalization and, potentially, citizenship for illegal immigrants in a round of media interviews this year. That pushed him to the forefront of the debate opposite Obama, who has made immigration reform his top second-term priority.
Obama and Rubio have mostly kept their distance. They talked on the phone about immigration last month, but the president did not invite Rubio to a recent dinner with other key GOP lawmakers or to a February meeting at the White House with Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Graham, who also are members of the Senate immigration working group.
"I think the president doesn't like the fact that Rubio said if he sent his own proposal it would be dead on arrival," said Carlos Gutierrez, the George W. Bush administration commerce secretary who heads a Republican group supporting immigration reform.
But, Gutierrez said, "it also was not helpful for the president to say that by March, if they did not have a deal, he'd send down his own bill. If Congress does not have a deal, it does not matter what the president does. It's up to Congress to get a deal done."
Rubio's notes of caution have made him sound at times more like the far-right conservatives who are opposing immigration overhaul. Pressed by Limbaugh, Rubio declared he would not support any bill that does not include beefed-up border control and workplace security, even as the White House has pointed to record levels of federal investments that have border crossings at an all-time low.
And Rubio's concerns about the pace of a legislative markup echoed a group of six Republican senators who wrote their own letter of concern to Leahy on the matter last month. One of those senators, Jeff Sessions, Ala., a leading opponent of immigration reform, applauded Rubio on Sunday "for supporting the request for extensive open process and public hearings."
Ali Noorani, director of the National Immigration Forum, a coalition of business, law enforcement and religious leaders, said Rubio's public posture is tentative because, as a leading GOP voice, he has "to lead his folks but can't get too far ahead of them."
That said, Noorani added, if the legislative process gets bogged down, the bill will "die on the vine."
Rubio aides said that since no deal has been reached in the Senate working group, there is little reason to raise expectations prematurely. They think Rubio will maintain strong support from his base whether an immigration bill that he supports passes or he opposes a bill because it goes against his principles.
"Details matter," said Alex Conant, Rubio's spokesman. "We remain optimistic that reform we support will pass this year. But if something is added to the legislation that we've always said we can't support, then people will understand our opposition."
Advocates said they hope that once the Senate working group presents its proposal, Rubio, having endorsed it, will be forced to remain on board. But Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which opposes increased immigration, said that it will be difficult for Rubio as the bill is debated and, likely, amended in the Judiciary Committee, on the Senate floor and, perhaps, in the Republican-controlled House.
"At some point, Rubio will either have to lash himself to Schumer or walk away from this thing," Krikorian said. "I'd bet my lunch — though maybe not my mortgage — that he will end up walking away and say, 'I tried in good faith, we made progress, but the administration and Democrats were unwilling to play ball.' "
Krikorian added: "If he walks away from it, it's over. It can still be defeated if he sticks with it, but I don't see how it can pass without him on it. Democrats made such a big deal of him, raised him up so much, if he walks Democrats are out of luck."