ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
The deep divisions within the GOP on immigration are at the heart of the party's struggle to win back the White House. And no one is feeling those divisions more acutely than the Republican who took the lead on immigration reform in the Senate, Marco Rubio. NPR's Mara Liasson reports.
MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: The Republican Party seems like two parties these days. In the Senate, Republicans joined a two-thirds majority to pass an immigration bill. But in the House, as you've just heard, Republicans are balking. Strategist Alex Lundry says it's hard to figure out the way forward when your party's base of power is the House of Representatives.
ALEX LUNDRY: One problem we have in the wilderness is that there are, you know, a thousand chiefs. And it is hard, to get a party moving when you don't have somebody at the top who is a core leader who can be directive in terms of this is the direction we're going.
LIASSON: One such leader was supposed to be Marco Rubio, the charismatic, young Hispanic senator from Florida. Of all the prospects for the GOP nomination in 2016, Rubio has been the most visible. He took a leadership role on immigration, and he's been taking it on the chin from his party's anti-amnesty base. Pete Wehner, a former aide to George W. Bush, says conservatives at first gave Rubio the benefit of the doubt.
PETE WEHNER: That's really dissipated. And within the last month or so, he's absorbed a lot of blows, and the criticisms against him have really amped up. And he's going to emerge from this immigration debate in some respects a weakened and wounded figure.
LIASSON: If Rubio does run for president, he'll have to compete in early states, like Iowa, where Steve Deace is a conservative activist and talk show host. Deace says Rubio's support of a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants has hurt him.
STEVE DEACE: I think a lot of the entire conservative movement is aligned against him on this. So I think it's him against a lot of his own tribe.
LIASSON: Rubio has been booed at tea party rallies and called a piece of garbage by Glen Beck. Polls show his support among Republicans has dropped by double digits. Deace says the reason is simple: immigration.
DEACE: This is undercutting his argument for the presidency. Rubio's argument for the presidency is: I defy all the leftist cliches. I'm Hispanic, I didn't grow up rich, I'm not a person of privilege, and the American Dream is still attainable to me. And when he goes out there and argues for what most people think is amnesty, and if he argues for it with a bunch of people who are big government people, it undercuts what we like about him.
LIASSON: Rubio defended himself in a speech on the Senate floor.
SENATOR MARCO RUBIO: It would have been a lot easier to just sit back, vote against any proposal and give speeches about how I would have done it differently. And finally, this is certainly isn't about gaining support for future office.
LIASSON: But Rubio has also been getting some high-level backup from the establishment wing of the party. The Chamber of Commerce and several big Republican superPACs have been running ads supporting his work on immigration.
(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Stand with Marco Rubio to end de facto amnesty. Support conservative immigration reform.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN#2: Call Senator Rubio. Thank him for keeping his promise and fighting to secure the border.
LIASSON: Rubio may try to make up lost ground as a champion of another bill that's popular with the GOP base: a ban on abortions after the 20th week of pregnancy. That might help with some pro-life activists, but not with those who see the immigration bill creating lots of new Democrats to vote for pro-choice candidates. Pete Wehner says Rubio's experience says a lot about the state of the Republican Party right now.
WEHNER: I think what the Rubio case study shows us is that reforming the Republican Party is going to be a hard task.
LIASSON: But Steve Deace sees it differently. When pundits wonder why Republicans can't seem to take one for the team - putting aside their differences on taxes or farm subsidies or immigration - Deace points out that's because the Republican Party isn't really a team at all.
DEACE: We're not a coalition-driven party. We're an ideologically driven party. The Democrats have a coalition-driven party. So you may have black ministers that agree with me theologically and morally, voting for the same candidates Rosie O'Donnell does, because they have a coalition in order to get access to government for something they believe they need.
The Republican Party is not a coalition of factions. It's an ideological party. It's kind of hard to have a party for Ted Cruz and John Boehner if you're an ideological party. Those two guys don't believe the same things.
LIASSON: And that's the problem facing the GOP as it struggles to update itself to appeal to a changing electorate. It just might not be possible to construct a tent big enough to accommodate the Ted Cruzes and the Marco Rubios. Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.