Why Marco Rubio Has to Have it Both Ways on Immigration Reform

Rubio pushes for 'gang of 8' bill while simultaneously distancing himself from it to shore up GOP votes.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., arrives at the Senate chamber for a vote on Capitol Hill in Washington, Monday, May 6, 2013. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP Photo)
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Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., sent a strong message to his allies in the "gang of eight" Monday: be prepared to swallow some major changes on the immigration bill if you want to see it pass.

[READ: Immigration Bill to Hit Senate Floor in June]

"Let me tell you, there will have to be improvements," Rubio said in a video address to constituents. "If we can make sure we put in place enforcement mechanisms and a guest worker program that ensures this will never happen again in the future, we're going to have responsible immigration reform. And if we don't have that then we won't have immigration reform, and I think our country will suffer for it."


The video was a reminder that as the immigration debate unfolds in the Senate, Rubio must continually temper his responsibilities as a key architect of the immigration overhaul and conservative pitchman with the reality of his 2016 ambitions.

"His political future is tied to the success of this legislation. He has taken a gamble," says Brent Wilkes, national executive director of the League of United Latin American Citizens, a non partisan group that is supportive of immigration reform. "He is too far down the road of being a champion on this bill to turn back and abandon it."

But he isn't too far along, to bolster his GOP credentials as the process unfolds.

Rubio has said without strengthening the border security proponents, a major selling point for his GOP caucus, that the gang of eight will find themselves without the Republican allies they so desperately need to pass the bill.

[READ: The Chuck Schumer, Marco Rubio Split on Immigration Reform]

In a way, Rubio gets the chance to have it both ways on immigration reform. On the one hand, he gets to keep his name on the top of the landmark legislation while simultaneously distancing himself from his own bill in the name of building consensus.

The latter could prove vital if Rubio finds himself in a GOP primary like the one in 2012 where Republican candidates raced to the right of one another on essentially every issue from the economy to immigration.

"The challenge is that only Rubio, of all the presidential contenders, has really got his name on this thing in a big way," Wilkes says. " His competitors could take a page out of Romney's book and make it a negative issue in the primary and hammer Rubio for having passed that."

Already one fellow Republican with lofty ambitions Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, has been an outspoken critic of the Senate bill. Even Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who has been supportive of the concept of comprehensive reform has yet to formally endorse the bill.

Over the weekend, Rubio sought to quell some of his colleagues concerns on the bill's border security provisions by announcing that he'd like to shift responsibilities from the Obama's administration back to Congress.

While the current Senate bill gives the Department of Homeland Security the jurisdiction to prescribe when the border is 90 percent secure, Rubio has said Congress must take a more active role in setting benchmarks, especially in the shadow of so many administration scandals.

[BROWSE: Political Cartoons on Immigration Reform]

"In the wake of IRS and everything else a lot of people are looking to see if we want to have some accountability on the administration," said one GOP leadership aide.

Leaders on the hill say Rubio's strategic criticism of the bill and calls to bolster border security actually help give Republicans in the Senate and even the House political cover to sign onto the bill.

"I think it will work," another GOP aide says. "He understands that for some it is never going to be good enough. But there are others where it can be good enough for them to support it."

This aide also noted Rubio's efforts aren't just limited to the hill. Rubio has appealed to the likes of conservative radio show host Rush Limbaugh and conservative television talk-show host Sean Hannity.

"He has been so effective in outreach in the conservative community," the aide says. "The commentators and party's chattering class are getting onboard and he is getting momentum to get votes on the hill that way."