J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., speaks at a Capitol Hill news conference with the Senate's "Gang of Eight," the bipartisan team pushing an immigration overhaul, on April 18.
J. Scott Applewhite/AP
In the current debate over revamping the nation's immigration laws, there may be no elected official with more on the line than Florida Sen. Marco Rubio.
Rubio, a Republican and Cuban-American from Miami, was elected to the Senate with strong support from the Tea Party and other conservatives. Rubio's challenge is to convince conservative skeptics that by supporting an immigration overhaul, he hasn't betrayed them.
Among other things, the Senate immigration bill tightens security on the borders and creates a pathway for immigrants who came to the country illegally to become citizens. Eight senators — four Democrats and four Republicans — helped write it. But since its introduction, Rubio is about the only one you see.
He has appeared on more than a dozen radio talk shows, targeting his pitch to the conservative Republicans who are some of the bill's most outspoken opponents.
When he appeared on talk radio's Laura Ingraham Show, the host asked: "Isn't it reasonable for these conservatives to assume that you've been duped here?"
"No, it isn't," Rubio responded, "because the fact of the matter is that this bill reflects principles that I issued back in January on immigration reform that were different from the principles the president had laid out. In essence, they've come to our position. We haven't gone to theirs."
One of the main concerns of radio talk show hosts, Tea Party activists and conservative bloggers is that Rubio and other Republicans are giving away too much on an issue they believe mostly helps Democrats.
After having Rubio on his show, conservative talk host Rush Limbaugh warned of the consequences. "There's no doubt there's a correlation: '86 amnesty and the Republican Party lost California," he said.
Limbaugh was talking about the 1986 immigration overhaul bill supported by Republicans, including President Ronald Reagan, that granted amnesty to nearly 3 million immigrants who had come to the United States illegally. Limbaugh and other conservatives say that amnesty helped spur more illegal immigration and created new Latino voters who helped put California in the Democratic column.
"There are legitimate fears that the same thing is going to happen to the country — that Republicans, conservatives, are going to end up just being outnumbered," Limbaugh said.
Rubio's office has dismissed fears that immigration reform will create a bonanza of new Democrats. Not all of the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants will become citizens, they say, and an even smaller percentage will vote. And many Republicans say the right candidate with a history of doing well with Hispanics — like Rubio or former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, for example — could do a lot to turn it around.
But for Rubio and other Republicans pushing the immigration bill, the conservative backlash is the immediate problem, and they are doing what they can to tamp it down. Americans for a Conservative Direction is running ads in Florida, North Carolina, Texas and three other states.
One ad features footage of Rubio saying: "What we have in place today is de facto amnesty." A narrator adds: "Conservative leaders have a plan — the toughest enforcement measure in the history of the United States."
While the pushback from the right against immigration reform is worrying to some Republicans, it's not likely to derail the bill. Some of the best-funded conservative organizations — like Americans for Prosperity, the Club for Growth and FreedomWorks — are staying out of the fight. And in the grass roots, Tea Party groups are split over the issue.
Within the Republican Party, there are many like Miami Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart who says the push for an immigration overhaul just recognizes reality.
"I wish we didn't have a Democratically controlled Senate and a Democratic president. But that's the reality," Diaz-Balart says. "So if we're going to pass legislation to deal with these issues that everybody understands have to be fixed, it's going to have to be a bipartisan bill."
Earlier this month, a group of Tea Party supporters held a protest at Rubio's office in Palm Beach County to express their displeasure with his support for the bill. It was a potentially worrying incident for Rubio.
But one of the demonstration's leaders, Jim McGovern, says while they may disagree over this issue, he still likes Rubio.
"Short of his committing a mortal sin or something like that, in my eyes, I'm still going to be a Rubio supporter," McGovern says.
On the radio talk shows, Rubio has had to answer some tough questions but has been mostly treated well. In the meantime, Rubio is being praised for his leadership and political courage — qualities that could be important in any future runs, including for president.