Marco Rubio's Tough Tightrope Walk on Immigration Reform

Can Rubio sell immigration reform to conservatives without compromising bill?

ByABC News
June 5, 2013, 5:09 PM

June 5, 2013— -- Marco Rubio walked across the Capitol on Wednesday afternoon to sell a large group of skeptical House conservatives on comprehensive immigration reform.

But the House Republicans did not emerge from the meeting singing a different tune. Instead, most of them dug in their heels against the Senate's bipartisan immigration reform bill. That leaves Rubio, the Gang of Eight's chief envoy to conservatives, in a difficult bind.

House members reiterated their doubts about a pathway to citizenship, and said that the border security language isn't strict enough. They also commented that they would rather address immigration in pieces rather than a comprehensive bill.

"There were no surprises in there," Rep. Raúl Labrador (R-Idaho), who is working on immigration legislation in the House, told reporters.

That resistance among House Republicans has Rubio twisted into a pretzel. Here's how.

Rubio was one of eight authors of the original bill. He's been extremely vocal in selling the proposal on conservative talk radio and to his colleagues in Congress. But now that he's hearing serious resistance to the bill from his fellow conservatives, he's threatening to vote "no" on the very bill he helped write unless changes are made to strengthen the border security provisions.

"Well, I think if those amendments don't pass, then I think we've got a bill that isn't going to become law, and I think we're wasting our time," he told conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt, when asked if he would vote against the bill if its not amended. "So the answer is no."

That's quite a reversal for Rubio, whose own website calls the existing language 'the toughest border security and enforcement measures in U.S. history.

But at the same time, we shouldn't be that surprised about Rubio's latest threat to vote against the bill. He's been building himself a so-called "escape hatch" to exit the talks from the very beginning of the process.

"Unless there are real enforcement triggers we are not going to have a bill that moves on the opportunity to apply for a green card," Rubio told Rush Limbaugh in January. "I'm not going to be part of a bidding war to see who can put the most lenient path forward."

Rubio's motives here are tough to decipher. Speaking to reporters on Wednesday, Rubio said he is aiming to get the best bill possible that can pass through a divided Congress.

"The goal here is not to pass a bill out of the Senate. The goal here is to reform our immigration laws. And that requires something that can pass the House, the Senate, and be signed by the president," he said. "If people want immigration reform, we are going to have to improve the border security elements of the bill."

So it's very possible that Rubio's constant tightrope walk is designed to extract further concessions from Democratic lawmakers in order to get Republicans on board with the bill and pass it through Congress. That's all part of the sausage-making on Capitol Hill.

His threats also allow both conservatives and reform advocates to get angry at him, but not enough to launch a full-out attack against him.

But at what point does that tactic go too far? Immigrant-rights advocates and Democrats have expressed worry about Rubio's efforts to add stronger border security language, especially since the security language was already toughened in the Judiciary Committee.