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The fate of an immigration overhaul rests almost exclusively with Sen. Marco Rubio, the Florida Republican whose star power with conservatives is crucial to moving a bill through Congress.
President Barack Obama retains veto power, and Democrats hold the Senate floor. But no comprehensive immigration changes are likely to pass Congress without the healthy support of House Republicans. And Florida’s junior senator, perhaps more than any other Republican serving in Washington today, has the political credibility and communication skills to sell such complicated, sensitive legislation to skeptical conservative members, grass-roots voters and influential media commentators.
Rubio’s position is all the more unique because congressional Democrats and Obama need him, too, and appear to realize his importance to the legislative endgame.
Republicans warn that Obama and congressional Democrats could sink Washington’s immigration policy rewrite by attaching controversial social provisions or watering down the border enforcement and security measures included in the bipartisan Senate framework that Rubio helped negotiate. The Florida lawmaker has said he’ll pull his support from any bill if that occurs, and Republicans say comprehensive policy changes will fail to garner meaningful GOP support without Rubio’s backing.
“If Rubio signals any mistrust or misgivings, the whole thing collapses,” GOP pollster Brock McCleary said.
Rubio, 41, was elected to the Senate only two years ago, yet he finds himself not just leading the debate on one of the most politically contentious issues Congress faces, but possibly being the central figure. Republicans on Capitol Hill give him all the credit for the fact that policy changes are a possibility at all.
Rubio’s push for an immigration overhaul has broad implications for the future of the Republican Party, which fared extremely poorly with minority voters in 2012 and is looking to rebound in the 2014 midterm elections and the 2016 presidential race, in which the senator is considered a leading GOP contender. But Republicans familiar with Rubio’s thinking say his desire to reform U.S. immigration law is rooted in his experience as a member of a south Florida community of Cuban immigrants and exiles.
Still, the politics are not lost on Rubio, nor is his particular significance to the outcome of Washington’s latest effort at wholesale immigration changes.
“He understands he has the kind of credibility with the conservative base that will be needed to help sell this to them. He also understands that if he walks away because the deal they reached changes, the bill will lose significant potential conservative support,” a GOP strategist said.