Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) on Wednesday defended his decision to work on bipartisan immigration reform and said "it has been a real trial" hearing Tea Party charges that he has turned his back on conservatives.
“This certainly isn’t about gaining support for future office,” he said in a Senate floor speech.
Rubio enjoyed strong support from Tea Party activists when he won his Senate seat in 2010 and has been a favorite among Republicans in early 2016 presidential polls.
But he has faced a backlash in recent weeks over his work on immigration reform that some conservative Republicans say could hurt his chances of winning the nomination, if he runs.
“I have received numerous emails and calls from conservatives and Tea Party activists. Their opinions and concerns really matter to me because they stood with me during my election,” Rubio said.
"To hear the worry, anxiety and growing anger in the voices of so many people who helped me get elected to the Senate, who I agree with on virtually every other issue, has been a real trial for me.”
Rubio was a central player in the Gang of Eight negotiations that produced the immigration reform legislation, and he led the early effort to sell the bill to conservatives.
After the 2012 elections revealed deep GOP weakness among Hispanic voters, Rubio was seen by many establishment Republicans as a leader who could help restore the party’s standing with the fast-growing demographic.
But Rubio's popularity with Republican voters has taken a significant hit in recent months as the Florida lawmaker worked to sell the immigration reform bill.
A Rasmussen poll earlier this week found the senator is viewed favorably by 58 percent of Republican voters, down 10 percentage points from May and 15 points from February.
Former Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.) recently said he wouldn't rule out a primary challenge to Rubio if he runs for reelection in the Senate.
Though Rubio focused in his speech on addressing Tea Party concerns, he said “for me, this isn’t about catering to any group for political gain.”
Rubio said he got involved in immigration reform talks for the right reasons.
“I ran for office to try to fix things that are wrong with this country,” Rubio said. “And that’s what this is about for me.”
Rubio said he didn’t want to leave immigration reform simply to Democrats because he knew the issue of border security wouldn’t have been strong enough.
Rubio said Tea Party activists aren’t “anti-immigrant” — they just don’t trust the federal government to enforce immigration laws that have gone unenforced over the last 30 years.
“It’s because the government has failed them so many times before,” Rubio said.
The Senate is expected to pass the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act later this week.
The legislation would create a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants already in the country, toughen border security, create a guest-worker program and boost high-skilled immigration.
Rubio said the bill “has flaws” but he stressed “it also has important reforms that conservatives have been trying to get for years,” including changing the nation’s immigration system to one based on work skills and merit.
“This isn’t about becoming a Washington dealmaker,” he said. “Truthfully, 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.”
Rubio, Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) comprise the Gang of Eight.
This story was originally posted at 2:06 p.m. and has been updated.