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June 11, 2013 12:44 PM Slouching Towards Bethlehem

By Ed Kilgore

The Senate begins debate today on comprehensive immigration reform legislation, using the Gang of Eight bill as modified by the Judiciary Committee as its baseline. Mitch McConnell signaled early on that there would be no leadership-backed filibuster against initial consideration of the bill, in part because quite a few GOP senators who will likely vote against the final product also want to claim they support immigration reform generally, and/or hold out hope the bill will be amended (i.e., gutted) to incorporate their views.

But the dynamics of the debate remain very complicated, particularly on the Republican side. As noted on several occasions here, Marco Rubio, Tea Party Hero by day, immigration reformer by night, has been playing a tricky game, sometimes publicly identifying with conservative demands that legalization of undocumented workers occur only after “hard triggers” involving wildly ambitious border control benchmarks are reached, sometimes echoing the traditional premise of “comprehensive” reform that a path to citizenship be firmly established that’s not conditional on external factors.

Having repeatedly praised, without fully endorsing, John Cornyn’s “RESULTS” amendment, which includes “hard” and difficult border enforcement triggers, to the point where Harry Reid has called it a “poison pill,” Rubio will apparently offer his own Cornyn Lite amendment, whose fate will loom large over the entire debate. On the very brink of Senate action, however, conservatives are drawing attention to remarks by Rubio on Univision Sunday that seem to call into question his credibility as a border enforcement zealot, to put it mildly, as Byron York points out:

In a Spanish-language interview Sunday with the network Univision, Sen. Marco Rubio, the leading Republican on the Gang of Eight comprehensive immigration reform group, made his strongest statement yet that legalization of the nation’s estimated 11 million illegal immigrants must happen before any new border security or internal enforcement measures are in place, and will in no way be conditional on any security requirements.
“Let’s be clear,” Rubio said. “Nobody is talking about preventing the legalization. The legalization is going to happen. That means the following will happen: First comes the legalization. Then come the measures to secure the border. And then comes the process of permanent residence.”
In most of his public appeals for the Gang of Eight bill, Rubio has stressed its enforcement provisions, saying that border security must come before immigrants are granted legal permanent resident status. What he has not stressed so much is the fact that the bill would legalize the 11 million almost immediately, after they have passed background checks and paid some sort of fine. That would happen before any new security measures are completed, or even begun.

So to a lot of conservatives, Rubio’s taking one line in talking (in English) to Republicans, and another altogether in talking (in Spanish) to Latinos.

I’ve given up trying to predict exactly what will happen on the Senate floor, though it’s important to remember that passage (still very likely) doesn’t matter as much as how House Republicans and the GOP “base” perceive the bill. Perhaps the optimum result for Rubio is to secure Cornyn’s own vote for his “Cornyn Lite” amendment, without jeopardizing Democratic support for the bill. But it’s important to remember that House Republicans just don’t generally share the sense of urgency about immigration reform that “Establishment Republicans” and their Senate friends so often express. WaPo’s Aaaron Blake notes the significance of the House vote last week seeking to defund the president’s initiative curtailing enforcement of immigration laws against those who would have benefitted from the DREAM Act:

The House vote signals that congressional Republicans aren’t afraid to take votes that may jeopardize their standing with Latinos. Indeed, the vote last week was essentially a symbolic measure with no chance of passage in the Senate, but it still got the support of 221 out of 227 Republicans who voted. If they’re voting for that, why wouldn’t they also vote against a path to citizenship?

So if Rubio (with the support of nearly all Senate Democrats) pulls off his multiple maneuvers and the Senate approves a modified Gang of Eight Bill with well over 60 votes, take the ensuing cheers of triumph with a shaker of salt. This legislation is at best slouching towards Bethlehem to be born, but it is indeed one rough beast.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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