Pro-immigration reform groups are embracing the conservative leadership of Sens. John McCain and Marco Rubio, despite their past criticisms of proposals similar to the one they backed Monday in hopes that this time, things will be different.
McCain, who in 2005 and 2007 paired with Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy on failed comprehensive immigration legislation, was thought to have suffered politically for his pro-immigration advocacy during his 2008 presidential primary campaign and distanced himself from reform efforts when he faced a conservative challenger in his 2010 Senate race.
But Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, says the national Republican Party is now ready to embrace McCain's longtime support for a comprehensive approach, which would strengthen border security but also allow for a guest worker program and provide a path toward citizenship for some illegal immigrants. "Sen. McCain's long-standing leadership on this issue has really been vindicated by where the nation's debate on immigration is now," Noorani says. "In 2006, he was the maverick on this. And in reality, he was, frankly saving the Republican extremists from themselves."
Noorani acknowledges that McCain did move to the right during his most recent Senate bid in Arizona, but says the end justified the means.
"Sen. McCain is an exponentially better senator for the country than J.D. Hayworth, the person who was hammering him from the right," Noorani says. "Politics is a complicated and brutal sport where people have to make tactical decisions, but at the end of the day, I think the country – much less the issue of immigration – is much better off with Sen. McCain in office."
Ben Johnson, executive director of the American Immigration Council, says immigration reform has long been a politically tricky issue, particularly for border-state conservatives.
"This has been a difficult issue for a lot of politicians to navigate, in terms of judging public perception of the problem," he says. "I think he made a political calculation on what to emphasize, but I think a piece of it was there were a lot of folks who felt like once the 2007 bill failed, it failed because of a lack of trust on the enforcement component."
Rubio, a Florida Republican of Cuban descent, has also generally been a champion of immigration reform but when running for the Senate in 2010 against a more moderate Republican opponent, he dropped support for measures he had previous supported such as allowing tuition breaks for children of illegal immigrants.
Once elected, Rubio was sought out by fellow conservatives to help lead on immigration reform but was reluctant to outline specific principles or legislation until a bipartisan group of senators recently formed.
Now, Noorani says, Rubio is a key supporter.
"Marco Rubio has emerged as a conservative champion on a number of issues, ranging from fiscal issues to immigration, so he has an ability to speak to the entire range of conservatives, social or fiscal conservatives," he says. "I just have to commend how he has staked out a position and has really been politically quite courageous in terms of really engaging his Republican base on it."
Rubio continued his push promoting the bipartisan plan in conservative outlets, appearing on Fox Business Channel Monday night and on Rush Limbaugh's radio show on Tuesday.
Thanks to the electoral thrashing Republicans received in 2012 at the hands of Latino voters – President Barack Obama was re-elected with 71 percent of their vote – Republicans have much to gain from earning leadership credit on this long-standing issue. And both McCain, who sees comprehensive immigration reform as a legacy issue, and Rubio, who would use it as a legislative triumph from which to launch a presidential bid, have plenty to gain from leading the charge.
But standing in the way remains a conservative House majority and it remains to be seen if McCain and Rubio can succeed in convincing them of the political import of a comprehensive immigration reform bill.