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Grass-roots conservatives and Republican lawmakers opposed to a comprehensive immigration overhaul worry that the final bill would legalize the status of about 11 million illegal immigrants already in the country without ensuring that border security provisions are implemented. That deep skepticism is driven by what happened in 1986, when President Ronald Reagan agreed to amnesty for 3 million undocumented immigrants on the promise of border security improvements that never materialized.
Rubio’s considerable challenge is to sway wary conservatives — on Capitol Hill, around the country and in the media — who feel burned by what happened under Reagan.
A Democratic Senate aide to a member of the group of eight senators behind the bipartisan framework said Rubio has impressed Democrats by being fearless in selling policy changes “to the most conservative corners of his party.” But in fact, Rubio has influence because he comes directly from the GOP’s conservative wing.
Perhaps just as important, Republican strategists say, is that the Floridian has a well-planned communications strategy designed to reach conservatives where they get their news and to appeal to their sensibilities. Rubio, they say, is effective both because he has submitted himself for interviews with every major conservative talk radio host in America and because he speaks their language. Few Republicans with Rubio’s crossover appeal are capable of this feat.
“Sen. Rubio has built a framework of legislative principles, but he also built a communications plan around his push for reform,” a GOP strategist and former congressional aide said. “Could anyone else have gone on Rush Limbaugh and performed the way he did and made the case for immigration reform the way he did? I don’t think so.”
The fact that there hasn’t been an all-out groundswell in opposition to the plan appears to stem from Rubio’s central involvement. But widespread skepticism remains, and with a potential primary challenge in the back of their minds, members will likely be cautious about supporting anything that might be deemed “amnesty.”
Rubio appeared on several conservative talk radio shows Tuesday and Wednesday as part of a campaign to explain why the plan should be palatable to conservatives. Despite his doubts about Obama’s motives and intentions, Limbaugh called Rubio’s efforts “admirable and noteworthy.”
However, the road ahead is rough, with or without him.
Republican lawmakers who are already against the plan have taken to the Senate floor and to the airwaves to voice their concerns about enforcement.
On Laura Ingraham’s show Wednesday, Sen. David Vitter, R-La., called Rubio “amazingly naive” to think that enforcement will materialize. A day earlier on the same show, Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, an original Tea Party Caucus member and a significant voice on immigration within the conference, called the plan “mass amnesty” and referred to the House as a potential “firewall” for the bill.