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Navarrette: Marco Rubio's balancing act

FILE - In this Oct. 5, 2011 file

FILE - In this Oct. 5, 2011 file photo, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. speaks in Washington. Rubio is address House conservatives Wednesday afternoon June 5, 2013 on a far-reaching immigration bill. (AP Photo/Haraz N. Ghanbari, File) Photo Credit: AP Photo Haraz N. Ghanbari

SAN DIEGO - One of the latest lines about Marco Rubio -- concocted on the left and picked up by the media -- is that the de-facto leader of the Gang of Eight is supposedly losing enthusiasm for his own immigration bill.

I follow the immigration debate closely, and I communicate with Rubio's office. If there is a loss of enthusiasm, I can't detect it. The only thing that Rubio seems to be losing is his patience -- with those who keep playing politics with this issue.

You can't blame him. The Republican joined seven other senators from both parties to negotiate the most sweeping immigration reform proposal in more than a quarter-century, and he was told by his colleagues -- as we all learn from news reports -- that this was just a rough draft. Don't worry, they said. There will be plenty of time to debate any amendments, they said. So Rubio not only signed on but went out front as the face of the bill at the risk of alienating the immigration restrictionist wing of the GOP.

Then, the reformers changed the rules. Sen. Patrick Leahy, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, wanted to fast-track the legislation. And every time Rubio argued for more debate or suggested tougher language, other members of the gang accused him of undermining the bill.
That's absurd. Rubio isn't undermining the bill. He is trying to save it.

This should be clear to anyone who can count to 60. That's the number of Senate votes that the reformers need to overcome a possible filibuster. They don't have anywhere near that many.

Never mind the spin from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who said recently that getting 60 votes for the bill would be no problem. Sen. Charles Schumer went even further and restated his goal of reaching an even more bullet-proof 70 votes. Reid and Schumer appear to be raising expectations so that, if the bill fails, they can blame Republicans for the letdown.

Meanwhile, Rubio is trying to keep it real. He said recently that he didn't think the bill had the 60 votes yet. But he is increasingly confident it could get there.

Rubio wants to help the bill's chances. But it doesn't help when, in trying to have it both ways, he tells different audiences different things or falls back on discredited GOP talking points.

First, Rubio has swallowed whole, and now parrots, one of the major falsehoods advanced by conservatives -- that the secret to avoiding future flows of illegal immigrants is strengthening border security. Higher walls, stronger fences, more drones, tighter surveillance, additional Border Patrol agents, etc. Simple as that. 

Not quite. We'll always have illegal immigrants as long as American employers are waiting eagerly to hire them. That's where the crackdown needs to take place. We need more employer sanctions, the kind that conservatives always find a reason to oppose.

Also, Rubio is mixing his messages as he switches between English and Spanish. For the last few months, whenever he has spoken publicly, and in English, about the Gang of Eight bill, he has stressed the need to secure the border first -- before illegal immigrants are given permanent legal status. But on a recent Spanish-language interview on "Al Punto," Univision's Sunday talk show, Rubio said that, if the bill passed, "first comes the legalization. Then come the measures to secure the border."

The right wing went ballistic. Yet if you listen closely to the interview, it appears that Rubio was talking about the very first thing that would happen after the bill passed -- i.e., illegal immigrants would get temporary protective status so they couldn't be deported. He was mistaken when he referred to it in shorthand as "legalization," which confused those who use that term to describe permanent legal status, or a green card. This is something that Rubio has agreed should not be available until after the border is secured.

Still, when you're trying to bring together people at opposite ends of the immigration debate, you have to be careful, candid and clear. In the "Al Punto" interview, Rubio was none of those things. As that debate kicks into high gear in the Senate in the next few weeks, he'll have to do better.

If not, we might get to the point where we won't be discussing whether Rubio has lost enthusiasm for his immigration bill. We'll be too busy talking about why so many in the immigration reform community have lost enthusiasm for Rubio. 


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