Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida (left) makes remarks at CPAC 2013 on March 14. Jim DeMint (right), president of the Heritage Foundation, is shown during a news conference on immigration reform on May 6 in Washington, D.C.
There was a time when Jim DeMint was committed to helping Sen. Marco Rubio achieve his goals.
At least not when it comes to remaking the nation's immigration laws.
DeMint is president of the conservative-leaning Heritage Foundation, which on Monday released a report contending that an immigration overhaul would cost U.S. taxpayers $6.3 trillion over 13 years in direct and indirect spending like welfare and public schools.
The think tank's report was clearly meant to slow momentum for revamping the nation's immigration laws. Rubio, one of the higher-wattage members of the Senate's bipartisan Gang of Eight, is leading the chamber's efforts on immigration.
Thought to be strongly considering a run for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination, Rubio won his Senate seat in 2010 in no small part because of significant and early support from prominent conservatives like DeMint, who then represented South Carolina in the Senate.
Back then, DeMint was widely viewed as the Tea Party's man in the Senate and Rubio was the choice of Florida voters who aligned themselves with the new, anti-establishment movement.
DeMint was unsparing in his advocacy for Rubio over Charlie Crist, who had been the establishment's preferred Republican for the Senate seat. It was in that spirit that DeMint once told a crowd: "I'd rather have 30 Marco Rubios in the Senate than 60 Arlen Specters," referring to the late senator and longtime Republican moderate who bolted from the GOP to become a Democrat when it became clear he would lose a party primary.
David Woodard, a Clemson University political scientist who wrote a book with DeMint, said the irony is that DeMint was one of the earliest Rubio endorsers. Rubio would joke that the only other people who supported him at that time were in his family.
"They were the closest of friends, I thought," Woodard said. "But of course, they're kind of in different places right now. One has to do something politically. The other can afford to be in the ivory tower."
DeMint may still prefer 30 Rubios to 60 Specters. But he certainly doesn't care much for the Senate immigration overhaul approach that his former protege has attached himself to.
Pinning his criticism to the path to legal status that the Senate bill would provide to immigrants who are in the U.S illegally — an estimated 11 million people — DeMint referred to that feature by a highly charged term for conservatives — "amnesty."
"Amnesty is unfair to those who come here lawfully and those who are waiting," DeMint said at a Monday news conference releasing the report. "It will cost the American taxpayer trillions of dollars over the next several decades, and it will make our immigration problems worse."
Heritage's report wasn't exactly a surprise. The think tank issued a similar report in 2007. And ever since an immigration overhaul became a bipartisan goal late last year, with many Republicans viewing it as vital to their chances of appealing to Hispanic voters, Heritage scholars have said the costs of changes would outweigh the benefits.
Still, it didn't go unnoticed that DeMint appeared to be throwing down the gauntlet at his ally's feet.
Rubio and his aides didn't have a public reaction to the report, at least not a direct one. Instead, a tweet on the senator's Twitter account pointed his followers to a National Review Online piece by Douglas Holtz-Eakin, former head of the Congressional Budget Office. In it, Holtz-Eakin essentially does his best to shred the living daylights out of the Heritage report. He wrote:
"Imagine the confusion among thoughtful conservatives, then, when in 2007, and repackaged and re-released today as version 2.0, a Heritage study failed to consider the implications of reform and instead looked solely at the cost of low-skilled immigrants and those effects on the government's profitability! Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me."
Ron Bonjean, a communications and political strategist who worked as a top congressional aide in both the House and the Senate, said that while DeMint and Rubio certainly had a connection, Republicans recognize they are two very different politicians.
"I don't know if people viewed DeMint as a father figure to Marco Rubio. They were both cut from the Tea Party cloth. But Rubio is coming in with much more youthful perspective and concern about the impact the lack of Hispanic support will have on the Republican Party over time."
Bonjean added that the report was unlikely to be an effective political weapon against Rubio and an immigration overhaul because it looked at only the downside and not the upside of revising the immigration laws.
"It comes at it from a very one-dimensional process," he said. "Republicans really care about the trees, not the forest here. The study would have a lot more impact if it came at it from a multidimensional approach, the impact on the economy on a positive and negative sense so lawmakers could make real, informed decisions. Instead, we have this one-sided viewpoint. It looks like a study with an agenda."