Sen. Marco Rubio’s decision to back away from the bipartisan immigration bill he helped author has baffled a longtime Florida Republican and ally of the senator.
Rubio has urged the GOP-controlled House to focus on passing smaller immigration bills and warned them against merging those measures with the Senate’s broad legislation. But that has many immigration-reform backers worried that Congress will leave out critical issues, like a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.
"I don't understand it,” Al Cardenas, the chairman of the American Conservative Union (ACU) and a mentor to Rubio, told reporters.
Cardenas thinks Rubio’s opposition to negotiating with the Senate over its bill is “counterproductive” because it is “not going to tackle the major components need[ed] to solve this problem,”he said.
“I'll need to talk to him personally about it before passing judgment,” Cardenas said. “On the surface, I wasn't pleased with it.
“Let's see the House feel its feet to the fire and let's see the House pass all the piecemeal ingredients it needs to, consolidate them into a final bill, and then go into conference on a final package,” Cardenas added.
Rubio’s decision to work with Democrats on a sweeping immigration reform bill rankled some conservatives, despite the senator’s efforts to persuade them to back the proposal. That may hurt the Florida senator in a primary election should he choose to run for president in 2016.
“I am just trying to be realistic about what is achievable,” Rubio told the Wall Street Journal on Monday. The senator said he wants the House to have “the time and space to decide how they want to move forward, which appears to be with a series of individual bills.”
Rubio spokesman Alex Burgos said in an email that the senator is "just trying to make progress on immigration reform, and the best way to make progress is to focus on what we agree on." It would be a waste of time if lawmakers "stick to an all-or-nothing approach," Burgos added.
But his shift has frustrated some immigration reform advocates who worry that his comments could stymie any momentum behind reviving the reform push in Congress. Cardenas spoke during an event at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington, where close to 600 people representing business, law enforcement and religious groups assembled before traveling to Capitol Hill to lobby GOP congressmen to back an immigration overhaul.
"The Senate has done their job, all of the pressure right now is on House members,” said Fresno County (Calif.) Sheriff Margaret Mims. "I think it all needs to come at the same time and it needs to be done now. It really looks weak to try and say, 'Let's do this a little bit at a time.' Let's send a strong message to the American people that we are going to get this right."
Not all immigration-reform proponents agree that Rubio’s comments will hurt the process in Congress. Some believe that Rubio is trying to provide the House with room to work on immigration at a time when relations between President Obama and Republicans are near their lowest point.
"Perhaps the effect of what Rubio is doing is to say, 'Hey, be careful when you conference. It's not a green light to do anything that the guys in the conference want,’” Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, told reporters.
Norquist is one of the most prominent voices for immigration reform on the right. He remains upbeat that Congress can pass an immigration bill that includes broad legalization and a expansive worker-visa program. But he said that Obama is a bigger obstacle to passage than Rubio.
"The idea that Rubio is getting in the way when the Democrats had the playing field all to themselves? They did nothing, less than nothing,” he said. "We had two years of President Obama where he didn't pass comprehensive immigration reform. He could have done it when he had all Democrats …. Rubio has done more to promote immigration reform than [Democrats].”
Cardenas also questioned whether Obama is truly interested in seeing an immigration bill pass, or if he wants to, “score political points, derail immigration reform, so he can gain a House majority in 2014."
"Knowing the culture of the House at this point in time, the best thing the president can do frankly is to play more golf and stop talking about immigration reform,” he said. “The more he talks about it in a divisive way, rather than an inclusive way, he lessens the chances of passage."
Jordan Fabian is Fusion's politics editor, writing about campaigns, Congress, immigration, and more. When he's not working, you can find him at the ice rink or at home with his wife, Melissa.