Move over, Marco Rubio. There's another 2016 aspirant in town and he's not playing your game on immigration.
Much has been made of the young Republican senator's role in crafting immigration reform, in small part because the Floridian is the son of Cuban immigrants with strong conservative credentials. But Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who also is the son of a Cuban immigrant, has struck a dissenting note that could threaten to undermine Rubio's efforts.
Rubio is credited with committing himself to a bipartisan proposal that includes beefing up border security and requiring businesses to verify the legal status of new hires, as well as creating an avenue of earned citizenship for the estimated 11 million immigrants currently living illegally in the United States.
The proposal hinges on convincing conservative lawmakers and voters to get on board. And Cruz, freshly elected in 2012, has proven to be a top voice in the conservative media sphere, acting as the foil to compromise and rallying the GOP base around him.
"I was elected because thousands of grassroots conservatives came together to protect the Constitution, shrink the federal government and promote growth and opportunity," Cruz wrote on his Facebook page Wednesday. "It is a continued source of amazement that the simple fact that I am working hard with like-minded Senators to keep my promise is seen as newsworthy and cause for wild speculation."
Cruz appears to be responding to a story by the National Review Online that claims he's contemplating a presidential run in 2016.
Rubio, elected in 2010, was a keynote speaker at the 2012 Republican National Convention and has been pegged by the GOP establishment as a top prospect for nomination in 2016. His leadership on a bipartisan immigration reform package has been seen by many as a chance to build crossover appeal and help bring the Republican Party closer to winning over Hispanic voters.
But the 'gang of eight's' inclusion of a provision that would allow those currently here illegally an option of achieving legal status – even though they would have to pay penalties, back taxes, learn English and wait for citizenship for more than a decade – is still getting labeled 'amnesty' by opponents and Cruz wants no part of it.
Cruz said as much during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the legislation last Monday.
"I hope that reform legislation will not be held hostage to an issue that is deeply, deeply divisive, namely a pathway to citizenship," Cruz said during the hearing. "In my view that's how we get something done, we focus on areas of agreement, not on areas of disagreement."
His spokeswoman went even further Tuesday, saying it would doom the measure's passage.
"Forcing a path to citizenship component will only ensure the bill's failure," says Catherine Frazier.
The immigration debate comes at a critical time for Republicans, as they try and reboot from 2012 election losses that saw them lose Hispanic voters – the fastest growing demographic – to Democrats by a 2-to-1 margin.
Conservative proponents of immigration reform say they hope Cruz will work to address his concerns, rather than just throw bombs from the sidelines.
"The amnesty label is wrong. I do not believe this bill in any way, shape or form is amnesty," says Brad Bailey, chairman of Texas Immigration Solution and a conservative restaurant owner pushing for reform. "Sen. Cruz, being a senator from a conservative border state – with 1,200 of miles of border with Mexico and a strong Hispanic heritage – and being the son of an immigrant, I think he could be a powerful voice in this so I hope he helps."
And unlike other major reforms that have been rushed through Congress, Rubio and others have publicly pleaded for the immigration proposal to be slow-walked – to receive the appropriate vetting and let all lawmakers read the bill and present their proposals.
"If you have a problem with any portion of the Senate legislation, come forward with what your solution is to fix it because what we have right now is de facto amnesty," says Jennifer Korn, executive director of the Hispanic Leadership Network, a conservative pro-reform group. "Being constructive in the debate is going to be looked upon more heavily than just the dissenter saying 'No, we can't do this.'"
But Cruz continues to blaze his own conservative path and has not offered an alternative proposal that copes with the 11 million living here illegally, according to his office.
"He is opposed to a path to citizenship that rewards those who have broken our laws and flies in the face of those who went through the legal channels to come here," Frazier says. "There's no good reason to push everything through at once and risk killing the entire piece of legislation."
Korn acknowledged the political calculations before Cruz, but says the growing number of Republicans coming out in favor of reform – such as Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., - are forming a critical mass that could render knee-jerk opposition moot. Both Paul and Ryan are considered top 2016 GOP presidential prospects as well.
"If you don't like everything that's in it, fix what you don't like; don't just be against it because – that's just silly," she says.