By Alexander Bolton - 08/20/13 09:00 AM EDT
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) has kept a low profile on the subject of immigration reform this month even while others in the Senate Gang of Eight pressure the House to act.
Rubio has taken a hit in the polls and his aspirations to run for president in 2016 may be in danger because of his outspoken support for the controversial Senate immigration bill.
Unlike other members of the Gang of Eight, Rubio has not held special events to tout the Senate immigration bill.
Instead, he has focused on building grassroots support for an aggressive plan to threaten a government shutdown unless the 2010 Affordable Care Act, known as ObamaCare, is defunded.
“He’s consistently said that the House should be given the time and space to pass their own reforms, and that he won’t be part of any effort to put pressure on House Republicans,” said Alex Conant, a spokesman for Rubio.
Other members of the Gang of Eight, however, have waged an August pressure campaign on House Republicans who are reluctant to take up the issue.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) urged constituents at a town hall meeting in Tucson last week to spur Arizona’s House delegation to support immigration reform. The Republican members of the delegation oppose overhauling the nation’s immigration laws in a comprehensive bill.
He will hold another town hall meeting on immigration reform with Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), a fellow member of the Gang of Eight, later this month, according to a Senate aide.
Flake has also scheduled meetings around his home state on the topic of immigration reform.
Sen. Dick Durbin (Ill.), a Democrat in the Gang of Eight, has already participated in six events to pressure the House to act on immigration reform. He and Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) hosted a roundtable on immigration in Ames, Iowa, at the beginning of the month.
Max Gleischman, Durbin’s spokesman, said his boss plans another series of events around Illinois “urging the delegation to act.”
Rubio, by contrast, has downplayed immigration reform during his meetings with constituents, focusing instead on the effort to defund ObamaCare, which is much more popular among conservative activists.
Conant, Rubio’s spokesman, said immigration reform has come up at meetings with conservative activists but people who attended say Rubio didn’t bring up the touchy subject himself.
“He only addressed immigration when it came up as a question from the audience, so it obviously was not something he planned to talk about,” said Alex Patton, a Republican political consultant who attended a recent meeting with Rubio in Gainesville, Fla.
Patton said Rubio devoted his speech to arguing for an all-out effort to repeal ObamaCare but when asked about immigration reform did not apologize for his work to help pass the Senate bill.
“When he was asked the question, he answered it directly, unapologetically and I thought he gave a pretty dog-gone good answer,” he said. “I think he wanted to talk and stress more the defunding of ObamaCare over the immigration bill.”
Rubio’s biggest public endorsement of immigration reform legislation was to warn last week that President Obama might be tempted to legalize millions of immigrants through executive order if Congress does not act.
Rubio has packed his August recess schedule with events around Florida centered on the looming fight over Obama’s signature healthcare initiative.
He spoke about ObamaCare at a Jacksonville Rotary Club lunch and a Gainesville Chamber of Commerce Roundtable on Aug. 12 and a Bay County Chamber of Commerce Roundtable on Aug. 13. He talked about the law’s impact on job creation at a small business roundtable in Pensacola on Aug. 14.
In Panama City, Rubio characterized the looming policy battle as a choice between defunding ObamaCare or hurting seniors.
“You’re going to see benefit reductions in Medicare for people under Medicare Advantage,” he warned.
Rubio has spent the month waging other battles popular with his party’s base, such as defending public prayer. He has taken the lead in criticizing the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for ruling prayer at the opening of town board meetings unconstitutional.
He has also sought to make amends with conservative voters by voicing support for legislation that would prohibit abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy.
When Rubio appeared on The Mark Levin Show on Aug. 6, he and the conservative host agreed to steer clear of what Levin called “the I-word.”
Rubio’s standing among conservatives took a big hit this summer because of his partnership with McCain and Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) to pass an immigration reform bill that House Republican leaders have declared will not receive a vote in the lower chamber.
A Granite State Poll published earlier this month found that only 6 percent of Republican voters in New Hampshire, a key 2016 primary state, support him, relegating him to fifth place among a field of likely candidates. An April survey by the same group showed him tied for the lead with Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.).
Democrats have sought to make up for Rubio’s absence by stepping up their efforts in the pressure campaign on the House.
Before leaving on a two-week trip to Asia, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) held a conference call with hundreds of Rabbis who plan to call for immigration reform during the Jewish high holidays next month.
Later this month he plans to work with allied groups in New Jersey and across the country “to keep up the pressure on Republicans in the House to pass comprehensive immigration reform,” said a spokeswoman.
Menendez has planned targeted events, conference calls, media interviews and social media outreach, according to the aide.
Earlier this month, Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) visited the Littleton Immigrant Resource Center to tout its work integrating immigrants into American society. An aide said the senator plans similar events before Labor Day.
Schumer is "making lots of phone calls" to members of the pro-reform coalition to help organize the grassroots lobbying campaign on the House, according to an aide.
Menendez, Bennet and Schumer are members of the Gang of Eight.