Obama spokesman Jay Carney said Monday the White House was encouraged by the positive comments over the weekend, but he was far from claiming victory. He said, "The process continues and is not finished." He wouldn't comment on Rubio's cautionary remarks.
Rubio's own comments were only the most recent example of his putting some distance between himself and other immigration overhaul supporters, including Obama and other members of the Gang of Eight.
When a draft of Obama's immigration legislation leaked in February, Rubio declared it "dead on arrival." On Saturday, he released a letter to Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., cautioning against a "rush to legislate" on immigration and asking for full hearings on the bipartisan group's bill once it is released
There's debate about whether Rubio is simply protecting his political flanks, or trying to prepare an exit ramp if he finds one necessary. Aides insist Rubio does want to support a bill and that everything he's doing is aimed at making the legislation politically viable by ensuring support from conservatives.
Schumer and others involved are acutely aware of the importance of Rubio's sign-off. That realization has helped the Florida senator win concessions on border security, legal immigration and other issues during months of closed-door negotiations. "He's gotten his way a good percentage of the time. He's persuaded people to his point of view a good part of the time," Schumer said.
Rubio became part of the bipartisan negotiating group after already having gone public with his own immigration proposals, which emphasize border security first before any pathway to citizenship can begin. And he would make that pathway a challenging one, requiring payment of back taxes and other concessions. Describing his own proposals to a series of conservative media hosts, he won generally positive responses.
Repeatedly, he's made clear that any proposal that does not meet his criteria will not get his support. And he's careful even in how he discusses the proposals under consideration. He shuns the phrase "path to citizenship," which he terms "an inaccurate phrase" because no immigrant can get on a path straight to citizenship — they have to get a permanent residence green card first.
Unlike several other Republicans with presidential aspirations, Rubio has avoided getting tripped up on the issue and having to clarify his stance, as happened recently to Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
So far, his aides say, Rubio has maintained his support from conservative backers in internal polls and his fundraising remains strong. He made a strong showing at a straw poll at the Conservative Political Action Conference last month, coming in a close second to Paul.
If the final bill is consistent with his principles, says spokesman Alex Conant, "Sen. Rubio and many other conservatives will support it. If the final bill doesn't meet those principles, Sen. Rubio won't be able to support it and conservatives will appreciate his principled stand."
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