Sen. Marco Rubio is planning to help introduce an education bill next week.
Conservative groups have turned up the heat on the prominent Florida Republican over his key role in crafting an immigration reform measure.
The future of the immigration bill is shaky, GOP operatives say, and Rubio, as the chief Republican spokesman for the bill, can’t afford to have it tank without having at least several other political irons in the fire.
“The immigration debate is consuming an enormous amount of Rubio’s time and political capital so I think he’s smart to strategically highlight a range of other issues,” said Matt Mackowiak, a Republican strategist with the Potomac Strategy Group.
“Given that there is uncertainty about how this plays out and what the ultimate result is, it’s risky for him to let immigration define him politically among the conservative base…They’re probably looking for smart ways to convey his conservatism on a range of issues,” Mackowiak said.
Rubio backed the American Dream Account Act — the education measure he plans to support next week — in the last Congress as well, but it failed to make it out of committee. The bill is being sponsored by Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) and would fund grants for organizations to mentor low-income students about higher education plans.
An aide for Rubio said there were no ulterior motives to the senator’s backing of the education bill, and that he has always been a leading voice on a range of other issues, such as education, foreign policy and national intelligence.
Earlier this week, the National Review, a prominent conservative magazine that takes partial credit for Rubio's election, ran a picture on its cover of the senator smiling broadly at a press conference with Sens. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.). The title read, “Rubio’s Folly.”
The move was a sharp blow from the magazine, which in 2009 ran a serious picture of the senator on its cover with the title “Yes, he can.”
National Review editor Jay Nordlinger later explained on “Morning Joe” that while the magazine likes Rubio, the immigration reform bill that he helped craft — along with three other Senate Republicans and four Democrats — is “bad policy” and has “too many loopholes.”
Rubio has adamantly said that the immigration bill the Gang of 8 put together is not perfect and can be improved upon, writing in a Wall Street Journal op-ed on Friday that the measure is a “solid starting point” but can be made better through input from other lawmakers and the public.
Rubio’s office says it has received more than 2,000 suggestions from the public through his official website about how to improve the immigration bill.
But while Rubio has opened the door for making changes to the comprehensive reform measure, the young rising Republican has also worked tirelessly to defend and explain it, saying that, “defeating it without offering an alternative cannot be the conservative position.”
Of the 43 press releases his office has sent out in the two weeks since the bill was unveiled, 37 of them have addressed the immigration reform bill or Rubio’s stance on it, with subject lines such as, “Here's The Truth About My Plan For Immigration Reform.”
The Rubio aide said that while the media’s spotlight has been focused on immigration and the senator has been frequently speaking out about it, that hasn’t stopped the rest of his staff from working hard on an array of other issues.
“We’re realistic that that the media can only focus on one or two issues at a time, but that doesn’t mean that our office should only do one or two things at a time,” said the aide, who asked not to be identified.
“The press office is very focused on the immigration issue right now because that’s what the press is focused on, but we have a big policy staff and only a handful of them are working directly on the immigration issue," the aide said.
Ford O’Connell, a GOP strategist with Civic Forum Strategies who worked on McCain’s presidential bid in 2008, said that Rubio is hoping to use his key role in the immigration debate as a way to draw in more moderates in 2016 if he wins the Republican nomination.
Rubio is also walking “a very fine line” and hoping that he can explain the bill well enough to get conservative support for it, O’Connell said.
“In the 2016 calculation, it could hurt him in the primary among the conservative base, but he’s hoping that if he gets beyond the primary it makes him look like a much more dynamic general election candidate,” said O’Connell.
“Obviously he’s trying to leave himself an out by saying the Senate bill needs more work. But being the chief spokesman for Republicans is a double-edged sword — if it works, you get a lot of kudos; and if it doesn’t, he’s going to catch a lot of hell.”