Democrats: We can call Rubio’s bluff

Democrats say Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) is overplaying his hand on immigration reform and warn he could kill the bill if he tries to steer it to the right. 

The angst among prominent Democrats is a sign that immigration reform has hit a rough patch and the first indication of cracks in the Senate’s Gang of Eight.

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Rubio caught fellow members of the Senate’s gang off guard Tuesday when he voiced support for an amendment sponsored by Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), the bill’s most outspoken opponent, to dramatically strengthen the system for tracking entry and exit visas. The Sessions measure was defeated by the Judiciary Committee on Tuesday. Rubio does not sit on the panel.

“He needs this bill to succeed as much as Democrats do. If this bill goes down, he goes down with it,” warned a senior Democratic aide. “Rubio is overplaying his hand if he thinks we’ll go along with anything.” 

Democrats found Rubio’s support for the proposal egregious because Sessions is an avowed opponent of the bipartisan measure. The amendment would have required the implementation of a system to track biometric data, which Democratic senators on the Gang of Eight say could add as much as $25 billion to the bill’s price tag.



Two Gang of Eight sources characterized Rubio’s support for the Sessions amendment as a “mistake.”


The pushback from Democrats will not deter Rubio, however.

“The bill as currently written will not pass. There are multiple red-state Democrats who have said they don’t support the legislation as currently written. Sen. Rubio has repeatedly said we must improve the border security in the legislation,” said Rubio spokesman Alex Conant.

Conant acknowledged his office should have done a better job of alerting fellow gang members that Rubio supported the Sessions amendment, but said the Florida senator has long been a backer of biometrics.

“Sen. Rubio pushed for biometrics in the gang meetings and nobody should be surprised we support biometrics. We’ll push this for the [Senate] floor,” he added. 

Democratic Sens. Mark Begich (Alaska) and Mark Pryor (Ark.), who are Republican targets in the 2014 elections, have said their support for the legislation will depend on its enforcement provisions. 

Republicans say Democratic leaders need to heed Rubio’s concerns if they want to pass President Obama’s top second-term legislative priority. 

“He’s their only hope. He could write the bill by himself,” said a senior Republican staffer, who argued the legislation would have little chance of passing muster with the GOP’s conservative base without Rubio’s backing.

The aide expressed amazement that a “freshman Republican senator is driving this.”

But Democrats are pushing back on the notion that Rubio is the key to winning enough Republican support to put comprehensive reform on Obama’s desk. 

They say the driving political force behind immigration reform is the recognition among Republican leaders that they need to improve their standing among Hispanic voters. 

The senior Democratic aide warned that Rubio could sink the bill if he continues to undermine what other members of the Gang of Eight have described as a carefully balanced compromise.

“These things add up,” said the source. 

“It’s not surprising to hear that some Democrats are grumbling about Sen. Rubio’s push for stronger border security, but it’s something he’s consistently fought for throughout the process,” Conant said. “We’ve said from the start that the borders must be secure if this plan is going to succeed.”

Meanwhile, immigration reform is teetering in the GOP-led House. 

A bipartisan House immigration group faces a make-or-break meeting Thursday night in search of an agreement, with Republicans saying they will move ahead on legislation without Democrats if a deal is not struck.

“I want it finished [Thursday] night,” Rep. John Carter (R-Texas) told reporters on Wednesday. “We’ve got bipartisan agreement on 95 percent of the bill. I don’t know why we can’t get the rest of it.”

The effort has come to a head and could be on the verge of failure after more than four years of secretive, on-and-off talks aimed at producing a comprehensive overhaul of the immigration system.

A source close to the Gang of Eight said Rubio wanted to enhance the negotiating leverage of House Republicans when he questioned the Senate bill’s viability in the lower chamber.

Groups that have backed the Gang of Eight’s bill are worried about Rubio’s efforts to push the reform legislation in a more conservative direction. 

“I think he’s trying to show his support for some of the more conservative members in the party. I think he’s leery of being seen as too progressive on immigration reform,” said Brent Wilkes, national executive director of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC). “One of the worries is as this bill moves along it’s going to move further to the right.” 

LULAC opposed the Sessions amendment. 

Democrats on the Gang of Eight have been careful not to criticize Rubio publicly.

“Sen. Rubio has played an invaluable role in crafting the legislation and defending it to the most conservative of audiences. There’s no worry among the members of the group that Sen. Rubio’s support is at all half-hearted,” said an aide to a member of the gang. 

In recent days, Rubio has backed Sen. Orrin Hatch’s (R-Utah) effort to soften restrictions on H-1B visas for high-skilled workers. While that pleased Hatch, it has given heartburn to labor officials. 

“Hatch is trying to unsettle a part of the bill that already leans pretty closely to employers’ interests and would undermine the American jobs of the future,” said Jeff Hauser, a spokesman for the AFL-CIO. 

Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), the leading Democratic sponsor of the bill, is interested in finding a compromise with Hatch to secure his vote for the broader bill. 

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), another member of the gang, has strongly criticized Hatch’s amendments. 

— Russell Berman contributed.