By Alexander Bolton - 01/30/13 01:33 AM EST
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) has launched an extensive effort to sell immigration reform to a skeptical Republican base — and so far, it’s paying off.
The success or failure of his outreach to the right wing will play a huge role in Rubio’s political future.
The possible 2016 White House candidate went into the lion’s den Tuesday by appearing on the programs of several conservative talk-show hosts, who as a group have previously been critical of “amnesty” initiatives that would create a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants.
Rubio’s biggest test came during an appearance on the “Rush Limbaugh Show,” where he fended off the incredulous host’s questions.
“What you are doing is admirable and noteworthy. You are recognizing reality; you are trumpeting it; you are shouting it,” Limbaugh said.
“You have a difficult job ahead of you because you are meeting everybody honestly and forthrightly halfway; you’re seeking compromise. Obama is seeking political victory,” Limbaugh said. “Obama doesn’t care about enforcing existing law, so people say, ‘Why would he enforce anything that’s new?’ ”
The media-savvy Rubio defended the bipartisan agreement he and seven other senators released earlier this week while vowing he would fight White House efforts to move the compromise to the left.
Limbaugh was clearly impressed with Rubio. “Is that guy good or what?” Limbaugh said on air after the interview.
“Here’s a guy who doesn’t fear talk radio, he embraced it,” Limbaugh added.
Twenty-four hours earlier, Limbaugh had ripped the bipartisan, Rubio-backed compromise as “amnesty,” and similar to the “Bush immigration bill that was beat back in 2007.”
Rubio on Tuesday also scheduled radio appearances with Fox News Channel’s Sean Hannity, conservative host Mark Levin and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R).
Since the election, both Hannity and Fox News host Bill O’Reilly have lauded Rubio’s immigration proposals.
The freshman senator has helped his cause by throwing some red meat to wary conservative hosts.
On Limbaugh’s show, he said Obama should not get into “a bidding war” with Republicans over granting amnesty for illegal immigrants.
“I think right now the president has a decision to make. If today becomes the beginning of a bidding war where he tries to be even more liberal than members of his own party in the Senate, then we, I think, we clearly know what his intentions are, and I don’t think that’s going to be a good development,” he said.
Rubio blasted Obama for not supporting a pillar of the bipartisan Senate framework requiring the nation’s borders to be secured before illegal immigrants receive temporary legal status and the chance to apply for permanent residency.
He also signaled that he will withdraw support from any immigration reform deal that extends federal healthcare benefits to provisionally legal U.S. residents: “If ObamaCare is available to 11 million people, it blows a hole in our budget and makes this bill undoable.”
Winning over the conservative base is essential to attracting enough Republican votes in the Senate and giving a comprehensive immigration reform enough momentum to pass the House.
It also has big implications for Rubio if he wants to run for president in 2016, as many GOP strategists anticipate.
Rusty Humphries, a conservative-leaning radio host with 3 million listeners, said this week that the outcome could be very good or very bad for Rubio’s future.
Timing is everything in politics, evidenced by Rubio’s decision not to release an immigration reform plan in 2012. Waiting has proven to be a wise move, because releasing a detailed proposal would have been extremely risky during an election year.
Moreover, many Republican lawmakers and strategists have been more open to immigration reform following the GOP’s disappointing showing in November.
Republican leaders know that Rubio is popular with the base, and his leadership role on the issue gives them a measure of reassurance.
Speaker John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) office emphasized Rubio’s role when it responded to the rollout of the Senate group’s principles for immigration reform.
Many Senate Republicans are on the fence about a bipartisan framework unveiled this week by Rubio, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and other members of the upper chamber.
Republicans who rejected comprehensive immigration reform packages in 2006 and 2007, Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn (Texas), Orrin Hatch (Utah) and James Inhofe (Okla.), said they need to see legislative details before passing judgment on the bipartisan framework for reform.
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), who voted for the 2006 bill but opposed cloture on the 2007 measure, responded cautiously.
“I think predicting how one is going to vote on this package before it gets out of committee is something I’m not prepared to do,” he said.
Rubio has tried to calm fears among conservatives by raising several points. He promised not to support any legislation that granted an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants a path to citizenship without first securing the border to stanch the flow of future illegal migration.
He noted that House Republicans would have a chance to weigh in, serving as a safeguard against legislation tilting too far to the left.
He said the purpose of his outreach to conservative and other media outlets is to ensure that Democrats and other potential opponents do not have a chance to mischaracterize the bipartisan framework he supports.
“What I want is I want people to understand what the principles are for, and what they’re not for,” he said on Limbaugh’s show. “One of the tasks that you do in your role here on the radio, with the many listeners you have, is to inform people about what’s really happening, and I want people to clearly understand what the principles are [and] what they are not.”