Rubio Meeting Softens Immigration Skeptic's View

At least one tea party skeptic of the immigration overhaul bill created by the "gang of eight" emerged from a private Tuesday meeting with Sen. Marco Rubio encouraged that the Florida Republican is committed to adjusting the legislation in a way that would make it palatable to conservatives.

Niger Innis, of TheTeaParty.net expressed deep reservations with the Senate bill before the gathering, which featured about 30 conservative supporters and skeptics of the comprehensive rewrite package. In a statement provided to this blog before the meeting, Innis referred to the bill as "more Schumer than Rubio," in reference to New York Sen. Charles E. Schumer, one of four Democrats in the gang of eight. Innis also made a point of expressing suspicion about the legislation's pathway to citizenship component, which he called "amnesty."

But Wednesday morning, Innis sounded a slightly different tune after hearing Rubio's remarks about where the legislation is headed and the changes he is committed to pushing. Although Innis did not change his mind about the group's legislation in its current form — and made clear that activist members of TheTeaParty.net are unlikely to support the proposal — he signaled that his grass-roots organization is poised to back Rubio's immigration effort if he can push the changes to the bill that he has said he wants.

Perhaps just as importantly, Rubio has not lost TheTeaParty.net's trust as a conservative stalwart. "Sen. Rubio is a very impressive leader. He’s a rising star within the conservative movement and is very brave to take on an issue that is so important and somewhat controversial," Innis told CQ Roll Call. "We feel confident that Sen. Rubio is going to continue to try and move this bill in the right direction — ideologically and literally. We feel that he is committed as a conservative to push this as far to the right as he possibly can."

Rubio continues to push back against conservative critics of the Senate bill who have labeled it as amnesty for the approximately 11 million illegal-immigrant residents, while embracing the call for changes from the right, such as a desire for stronger border enforcement provisions.

Innis said Rubio has a tough task, pushing against a Senate that is controlled by the Democrats and members of the gang of eight, such as Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and John McCain, R-Ariz., who Innis believes are more likely to agree with the four Democrats than Rubio and Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, the other GOP member of the group. Innis said he would like TheTeaParty.net to serve as a conduit of communication between Rubio and conservative activists as the Floridian works to improve the immigration bill.

"We will give him access to explain details of the bill," Innis said. "He’s got one difficult, heavy lift. We recognize that and we want to help him push this bill as far [right] as possible."