A slow-burning feud between Sens. Marco RubioMarco RubioSenate rivals gear up for debates Rubio: End of Obama's term could be 'most damaging yet' Fifteen years since pivotal executive order, STORM Act could help fight terror finance MORE and Ted CruzTed CruzPence offers Cruz 'heartfelt thanks' for Trump endorsement Cruz: Trump hasn't apologized for personal insults Cruz says he forgives Trump for attacks on family MORE spilled into the open on Thursday, as the two rising GOP presidential contenders began openly warring over immigration reform.
Cruz has long fashioned himself as one of the few party purists on the issue, and someone who is dead set against “amnesty” for the estimated 11 million immigrants presently in the country illegaly.
But in a Thursday interview with conservative radio host Laura Ingraham, Cruz took his rival on directly, claiming that Rubio opposed “every single amendment” to the Gang of Eight bill aimed at enhancing border security.
“The Gang of Eight, all eight of them, agreed to vote against every amendment that would strengthen the bill from an enforcement perspective," Cruz said. "The Gang of Eight voted as a gang against enforcing and securing the border.”
Cruz has been warning Republicans that the Gang of Eight bill, which he calls “the brainchild of Chuck Schumer and Barack Obama,” would have resulted in blanket amnesty for those in the country illegally.
He has argued that if the GOP nominates a candidate that supported the bill, the party will have “given up one of the major distinctions with Hillary Clinton and we will lose the general election.”
Perhaps recognizing that immigration reform is among his biggest vulnerabilities with the Republican base, Rubio went on the offensive Thursday.
The Florida senator declared in the morning that many people in the country illegally “will have to be deported” before the American people can trust Congress to move forward on reform.
Later, he punched back directly, telling CNN that Cruz is on the record in support of a path to legalization for those in the country illegally.
“Ted is a supporter of legalizing people that are in this country illegally,” Rubio said, according to CNN.
Later, Rubio’s campaign sent out background information pointing to comments Cruz made during the Gang of Eight negotiations, when the Texas senator pushed for an amendment removing the path to citizenship from the bill but keeping work permits.
“I don’t want immigration reform to fail, I want immigration reform to pass,” Cruz said in a Judiciary Committee hearing at the time, according to video provided by the Rubio campaign. “So I would urge people of good faith on both sides — if the objective is to pass common sense immigration reform that secures the borders, that improves legal immigration, and allows those who are here illegally to come out of the shadows, then we should look for areas of bipartisan agreement.”
The Rubio campaign also pointed to Cruz amendments to the bill aimed at bolstering legal immigration that he said would result in “a massive expansion” of green cards and foreign work permits.
“In fact, when the Senate bill was proposed, [Cruz] proposed giving them work permits,” Rubio said at a campaign event in South Carolina.
“If you look at it, I don’t believe our positions are dramatically different,” Rubio said.
Cruz’s rapid response director Brian Phillips laughed at the suggestion.
Laughably FALSE. No one fought harder to prevent Gang of 8's amnesty bill than Ted Cruz. Record is remarkably clear. https://t.co/Y5VDQLXE7w— Brian Phillips (@RealBPhil) November 12, 2015
The stakes in the battle are high, as some Republicans believe the current Republican front-runners, Donald Trump and Ben Carson, will fade. That could create a final showdown for the nomination between Rubio, who has establishment appeal, and Cruz, a favorite among grassroots conservatives.
Both men are fresh off strong debate performances Tuesday night in Milwaukee, and sit in third and fourth place in many national and early-voting state polls, behind Trump and Carson.
While Rubio is taking a more aggressive stance on immigration this week, it’s a complicated matter for him.
He was one of the original members of the Gang of Eight, and voted for the legislation that the group produced.
But he’s been dealing with blow-back from immigration hawks in his party ever since, and needs to convince skeptical Republicans that he can be trusted on the issue.
On Thursday, Rubio insisted that he’s not seeking to straddle the “middle line” on the issue.
“It’s not about a middle line, it’s about reality,” he said. “People will have to be deported, there’s no doubt about it. But we also have to deal realistically with the fact that we have 12 or 13 million people or whatever the number is.”