Senator Marco Rubio has taken a fair amount of heat for his leadership in dealing with illegal immigration. In interviews, Rubio’s immigration proposals sound quite agreeable. Yet the actual bill produced by the Senate follows the usual pattern of conservatives “compromising” with liberals: liberals get what they want right away while conservatives get far less of what they want and it is usually “down the road” or riddled with loop-holes. Unsurprisingly, Rubio’s immigration plan follows this pattern and his sensible goals do not make much of an appearance in the original version of the Senate bill. But perhaps Rubio should be given some slack on the issue. There is some indication that Rubio is playing the long game and it might prove a necessary move. Before we declare Rubio’s political future dead, perhaps conservatives should at least let the situation unfold.
Political Reality: The US Senate is Controlled by Democrats
It is important to note that any version of immigration reform that passes that US Senate will not be to the conservatives liking, whether Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, or Rand Paul work on it or not. We can also assume that the bill that passes the US House will not be to the liberals liking, but more on that in a bit. In the US Senate, Republicans have two options. The first option is to filibuster the bill and prevent it from ever getting a vote and passing. This is probably not the best route. Immigration reform has been building for a long time and the Democrats would love to use it, once again, as a campaign issue in 2014. The Democrats refusal to compromise will not hurt their argument that Republicans won’t let the bill be voted on. The political reality is that voters want something to be done on illegal immigration. But a second political reality is that voters agree, for the most part, with the Republican insistence of strong law enforcement mechanisms.
The second option is to let something pass through the Senate. No, conservatives will not like any bill that originally passes the Senate, but the GOP-led US House ideally will prevent that original version from ever becoming law anyway. But this is where Rubio is important. First, he is already working to get some concessions put into the Senate immigration reform. In fact many of his proposals are included. But as noted earlier, many of his proposals have been defanged by his liberal counterparts. But he is building some good will by working on the bill and laying a workable foundation. While we may not realize it, while the Senate bill is not currently acceptable to conservatives, it would be an outright disaster is solely crafted by pro-amnesty, anti-enforcement liberals. If the latter were the case, virtually no compromise with the US House would be possible and, undoubtedly, the GOP would be blamed.
The original Senate bill is not worthy of conservatives entering freak-out mode. Assuming the US House takes a conservative approach it will never become law as there is no way the US House would adopt the Senate version as-is. Instead, the US House will likely pass a much more conservative and pro-enforcement immigration proposal. Unlike in the US Senate, the congressional Republicans can effectively pass anything they want without having to compromise with congressional Democrats. So here, conservatives should pass the most conservative version they can and then aim to “compromise” with the US Senate on a good proposal. It is important that the House pass a conservatives dream of an immigration bill with far more than they will ever get and compromise down to a good bill. If they start with a good bill and then start compromising, they wind up with a bad compromise. Ideally, you will have great US House bill going to a conference with a mediocre Senate bill. But the Senate bill at least has a foundation of workable proposals due to Rubio’s efforts.
Good Faith Measure: Setting up a Compromise
Marco Rubio has easily become the face of immigration reform. To his credit, he has heavily engaged both conservative and mainstream media. He is currently seen as someone who is willing to work with Democrats, which has admittedly hurt him with conservatives as the produced bill is not that great. But he has also set himself up as a “reasonable” politician. Many conservative favorites have rendered themselves useless in the debate because they are already viewed as unwilling to compromise and can be easily dismissed by both the media and political opponents. Rubio has not done that. Instead, he has attempted to inject some sensibility into the Senate version of the bill. When the bill then goes to conference, he can then use that good will to attempt to strengthen his proposals that the US House would almost certainly demand for passage. The eventual compromise is where Rubio could become most effective. While watching Rubio currently defend his proposals, it is important to note that he talks about his ideal version of reform rather than the actual Senate version of the bill. In the long run this can be important as he is currently advocating for specific proposals he knows that the US House should demand for passage.
Worst Case Scenario: The Status Quo
One of the key arguments made by proponents of immigration reform is that the current system is “broken” and must be reformed. But what is broken is the refusal of the Obama administration and, previously, the Bush administration, to enforce the law. There are already laws in place that would solve the illegal immigration problem if you had a government willing to enforce those laws. This reality should be used as a bargaining tool for the conservative side. Americans overwhelmingly agree on securing the border before citizenship can be handed out. Border security is easily the most popular element of immigration reform with voters of all political leanings, yet this has been the key point that liberals have fought the most. I cannot imagine a scenario where Republicans in the House would agree to a bill that not only fails to include enforceable border security while making immigration policy even worse than it currently it is.
The Republicans have a lot of leverage. They can stop immigration reform in both the US House and, to some extent, the Senate. But they need to let it progress to at least a point where they can’t be reasonably accused of completely refusing to deal with the issue. It’s possible that both chambers get some of what they want, and I can see a scenario where that is not a disaster. Rubio is at least attempting to make a reasonable final bill possible. If Rubio is playing the long game, it might just work.