WASHINGTON -- Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) has quickly become the face of bipartisan immigration reform. But more than a dozen interviews in 48 hours with conservative, mainstream and Spanish-language media outlets show Rubio's challenge: Walk the fine line between pushing a pathway to citizenship for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S., while appeasing the conservative base that helped elect him two years ago.
On Wednesday, the Florida senator faced a similar task at a Senate Steering Committee luncheon, where he spoke about the immigration reform proposal to some of his own skeptical colleagues. As he emerged from the meeting, Rubio declined to say what was discussed. But he conceded that the pathway to citizenship was a tough sell to opponents, who call it "amnesty." He said their concerns were rooted in a false premise that the "Gang of Eight" reform framework unveiled on Monday is much like the reform efforts in 2005 and 2007.
"This issue obviously people took positions on a few years ago, and any time they hear discussions on this they compare it to the efforts in '05 or '07," Rubio said. "Number one, they can't be the same, because these are principles and that was a bill. Number two, the principles in this that we've outlined are significantly different in my opinion than the things that were discussed in '07."
The 2005 effort was spearheaded by the late Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). Their proposal, with other unsuccessful legislation, served as the blueprint for the failed Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2007. Rubio pointed out that the act didn't include enforcement triggers he would have supported and contained a "special pathway through something they called a Z visa."
"This bill says you have to access the reformed legal immigration system that we're going to create, so there are differences," Rubio said.
He described the pathway he's backing as follows:
If you have violated our immigration laws, you'll have two choices: Choice number one, under the current law, is return to your country of birth, wait 10 years and apply for a green card through the regular process. The second choice is if you want to stay here, you have to pass a background check, you'll have to pay taxes, you'll have to pay a significant fine, you'll get a work permit, and then at some point in the future -- when the enforcement mechanisms are in place and some time has elapsed -- you'll have the opportunity to apply for a green card through the regular process, just like anybody else would.
The enforcement trigger is perhaps the biggest difference between 2007 and 2013, stipulating that anyone on provisional immigrant status cannot obtain a full visa until certain border security metrics are met.
Otherwise, argued McCain, one of the eight senators who proposed the latest framework, the new plan is similar to its predecessors.
"You will find that this agreement has very little difference from that of the legislation that was led by Sen. Kennedy some years ago," McCain said on Monday.
But for Rubio, the distinction is important. As a Senate candidate in 2010, he referred to Kennedy and McCain's failed legislation as "amnesty" while criticizing his opponent, then-Gov. Charlie Crist (D), on the subject of immigration during a 2010 Fox News debate.
I think that plan is wrong, and the reason I think it’s wrong is that if you grant amnesty, as the governor proposes that we do, in any form, whether it's back of the line or so forth, you will destroy any chance we will ever have of having a legal immigration system that works here in America.
Now, Rubio is insisting that he has always opposed a "special pathway" to citizenship.
"That's the term I've always used, because it is unfair to people that are in line, who have done it the right way, and it is unfair to those who are trying to come legally now," Rubio explained on Wednesday. "And if you give a special pathway to citizenship, it's a magnet for future illegal immigration.
"This is not a special pathway," he added. "All we're giving them … is that at some point in the future they'll have the opportunity to apply for the regular pathway. They can do that now under existing law."
For his collaborators on immigration reform, it's imperative that Rubio stays on the same page. In addition to being the preferred messenger to conservatives, Rubio's involvement will be critical to selling the plan to Republican lawmakers still on the fence.
"I think having Marco Rubio is very important," said Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), one member of the group, on Tuesday. "We want to have as much Republican support as we can get."
Immigration reform carries great political risk, particularly for Rubio, favored as a potential GOP presidential candidate in 2016. Depending on the outcome, his name could either be closely linked to yet another failed immigration effort -- or to successful reform that conflicts with some of the principles of his core conservative base.
But Rubio said the chance to finally act on immigration far outweighs the politics of doing so, especially at a time when the momentum has shifted significantly.
"I think the country's taking a much bigger risk by not doing anything," he said.