NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — Ahead of a possible 2016 presidential bid, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida) sounded like a candidate who had learned his lesson with one of the most important issues to the conservative base.
During a question-and-answer session with Fox News host Sean Hannity here at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), Rubio repented for his past on immigration reform, saying he's "learned" from the experience.
Two years ago, Rubio was part of a Senate "Gang of Eight" that drew up a comprehensive bill to reform the nation's immigration system. The bill, which included a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants currently in the United States, prompted a conservative revolt among the party's grassroots. It passed the Senate but was never taken up in the House of Representatives.
Hannity asked Rubio about his past support for the bill. He suggested it was a mistake to go after comprehensive reform before focusing on complete border security.
"You have 10 or 12 million people in this country, many of whom have lived here for longer than a decade [and] have not otherwise violated our law other than immigration laws. I get all that," Rubio said.
"But what I've learned is you can't even have a conversation about that until people believe and know—not just believe, but it's proven to them—that future illegal immigration will be controlled. That is the single biggest lesson of the last two years."
Rubio's shift back to the right on the issue appears to have gotten him back in the good graces of the conservative base, as the 43-year-old weighs whether to mount a bid for the presidency next year.
His shift contrasts markedly with that of Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who Hannity is set to grill later Friday at the conference. It also comes amid a heated debate in Congress about how to confront President Obama over recent executive orders on immigration. The Department of Homeland Security is set to partially shut down at 11:59 p.m. Friday if Congress can't agree on a solution.
The crowd liked what Rubio had to say. He earned numerous bouts of applause and a few standing ovations during his question-and-answer session, especially after criticizing Obama's executive orders that will shield millions of undocumented immigrants from deportation.
Rubio said Obama had "proven true" one of the biggest arguments against the "Gang of Eight" bill—that a path to citizenship was on the table before the border was fully secured.
"The president not once but now twice has basically said by executive order, 'I won’t enforce the law,'" Rubio said.
Rubio suggested congressional Republicans should continue to fight to block the orders from being implemented, even though he admitted that the GOP would get the blame.
"If you lose that constitutional check and balance on power, you lose the essence of what makes our nation different from others,” he said. “It’s not a policy debate. This is a constitutional debate.”
Brett LoGiurato is the senior national political correspondent at Fusion, where he covers all things 2016. He'll give you everything you need to know about politics, with a healthy side of puns.