Commentary Magazine


Did Rubio Call an Audible?

One of the obstacles to garnering support for comprehensive immigration reform is the federal government’s poor reputation for enforcing the laws on the books. Advocates for immigration reform correctly point out that the current system amounts to a kind of unofficial, but clear, amnesty for illegal immigrants. While that claim is often deployed in defense of the current immigration reform efforts, it does raise the seeming contradiction of the bill’s proponents acknowledging the government’s underwhelming track record while asking the public to believe the government will get it right this time.

This is a common problem for supporters of any major overhaul. When President Obama talked about offsetting Medicare provider cuts by rooting out waste, fraud, and abuse (that slippery target that perennially plays Road Runner to the government’s Wile E. Coyote), the obvious response was to ask him why they haven’t already simply eliminated the waste, fraud, and abuse if they know it’s there, and why they need a reform bill to do so at all. So it is with “securing the border” and other elements of immigration reform. And Marco Rubio, a member of the “gang of eight” senators behind the current immigration reform legislation, is conceding as much. Politico reports that, because of those concerns, Rubio doesn’t think his own bill could pass the House:

“The bill that’s in place right now probably can’t pass the House,” Rubio told Mike Gallagher, a nationally syndicated talk show host. “It will have to be adjusted, because people are very suspicious about the willingness of the government to enforce the laws now.”

He continued: “That is a very legitimate suspicion, it’s one that I share, and if there’s anything we can do to make [the bill] even tighter … that’s exactly what we should be working on.”

In a separate radio appearance Tuesday, Rubio elaborated on the challenges facing the legislation in the House, saying the enforcement mechanisms in the Senate legislation would need to be much stronger in order to pass the lower chamber.

Critics will wonder why those enforcement mechanisms weren’t strengthened before Rubio and the gang of eight unveiled the bill. But it’s possible that opinion has been fairly fluid on the bill, and that it was difficult to take the public’s temperature–or that of the House GOP caucus–on a bill that didn’t yet exist, especially one more than 800 pages that had to be acceptable to the bipartisan group.

The bill is also in a precarious state from start to finish anyway. As I wrote last week, for the bill to pass the House, it would need strong conservative support in the Senate. Therefore, much would depend on how senators like Rand Paul voted. Because Rubio and Paul are considered potential 2016 candidates, GOP primary politics play into it. The trick on immigration for the candidates is to be conservative enough to survive the primaries but not too conservative for the general electorate. As such, if none of the 2016 candidates from the Senate opposes the bill, Rand Paul could easily get to the rightmost edge of the group by offering amendments that would pull the bill to the right without torpedoing it.

But the subject of my post from earlier today, Ted Cruz, may throw a wrench in such calculations. If Cruz opposes the bill–and when Cruz opposes something, he does not do so quietly–and it passes, as far as GOP border hawks are concerned Paul might as well be Rubio, who might as well be John McCain all over again. That depletes Paul’s incentive to have anything to do with the bill unless he can pull it much farther to the right, in which case he and Rubio will still be in the same boat but they will have left less space to their right for Cruz. If they can do that, they may lose border hawks to Cruz but Cruz will lose out among Hispanics and libertarians, possibly offsetting his advantage in the primaries while dooming his prospects should he win the nomination.

Thus, if Rubio believes Cruz is going to enter the 2016 race, his best play is to nudge the bill to the right. But he’s already produced his version of the bill, so someone else would have to do that. Having Paul do so would increase the chances that Paul will vote in favor of the final bill, leaving Cruz to the right of both of them. Since Rubio’s original strategy was almost certainly not to produce a bill and then go on talk radio to bash it, he seems to have been calling an audible here. And that audible was most likely intended to encourage Paul to beef up his amendments, especially on border security, so they could end up with a final bill they both could vote for while marginalizing conservative opposition.

When Rubio says the bill can’t pass the House as it currently stands, then, he may be right–but he’s probably not thinking primarily about the House.

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