WASHINGTON -- Sen. Marco Rubio has, for months, positioned himself as the focus of the immigration debate, the reason why a reform bill has gotten as far as it has. But now he has managed to create an aura of mystery: Is he still on board with it or not?
A series of increasingly mixed signals from the Florida Republican including telling a conservative radio host Tuesday that he would vote against the bill he helped write if changes are not made has frustrated and worried reform advocates as the Senate is scheduled to begin debate Friday .
Which way Rubio, a potential 2016 presidential candidate, goes is crucial. House Republicans are already resisting the Senate approach.
In politics, perception is everything, and its deeply concerning a lot of us, said David Leopold, former president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. I have a lot of respect for Sen. Rubio, but a true leader puts politics aside. This is not an issue you can play both sides.
Gaby Pacheco, an activist from Florida who has come to admire Rubio, said the comments marked the first time she has been worried.
I think hes trying to separate himself from the bill, she said. If you do something, you just dont halfway abandon it. This bill is his child, and when a child grows and there are issues, you dont disown him. You work through it. The bill was moving to the right anyway. I dont see why he has to say this.
At the same time, Rubio has given hope to critics of the legislation that he will withdraw. This is a very dramatic development, said Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala.
Rubio said he is pushing to strengthen the bill by adding more border-security and enforcement measures. One of the reasons why I was asked to even join this effort is to help bring Republicans on board. Thats what Im trying to do, he said.
Asked pointedly during an interview Thursday whether he was walking away, Rubio replied: Im 100 percent committed to immigration reform. But Im committed to an immigration reform law, not an immigration reform bill.
Somehow, if efforts here were to slow down for whatever reason, Ill keep working. I wont abandon this issue until it gets done.
The 42-year-old son of Cuban immigrants is caught between strong forces: A diverse pro-reform coalition that includes evangelicals, labor unions, business and Republicans eager to open doors to Hispanic voters versus opposition from some conservatives and anti-immigration interest groups.
The Federation for American Immigration Reform, which wants fewer people coming into the country, said this week that it had launched a television ad across the country that asserts Rubio is pushing the same failed promises of the 1986 amnesty bill.
Rubio has done much to quiet conservative opposition, but the pushback has grown as the Senate bill has advanced. On Laura Ingrahams radio show, where the host has blistered Rubio for weeks, a tea party leader from Colorado called in this week to say Rubio has lost the tea party. There is no support for him on this issue.
The equivocating is not new for Rubio.
He took a hard-line approach on immigration as a U.S. Senate candidate in 2010 after being seen as a moderate in the Florida House. He opposed the Dream Act, which would create a path to citizenship for children of illegal immigrants, then proposed his own version to give them legal status. But Rubio never filed a bill, and President Barack Obama then instituted something similar by executive order.
After joining the Senate Gang of Eight that wrote the current bill, Rubio emerged as an enthusiastic champion. But as conservative criticism has grown, he has gotten more pessimistic, and expressed agreement with some Republicans who say the bill he helped write is flawed.
Whats stymieing efforts in the Senate is not my comments, Rubio insisted. Whats stymieing efforts in the Senate is that we dont have the votes to pass it because too many members on both sides of the aisle do not believe it goes far enough on border security.
Advocates of reform say they understand Rubios delicate dance and think he is too far in now to back away but fear the bill will move too far to the right.
I can understand the value of being hard to pin down, said Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum. But Sen. Rubio is at his best when he has a clear strategy on how he is going to build consensus. You cant build consensus in one place and then go around the corner and try to undermine it.
Rubios Gang of Eight colleagues do not sound worried. I think hes trying to grow the vote, said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., sounded as if he were working off Rubios talking points: My view has always been that the American people will support commonsense solutions to the 11 million [undocumented migrants in the country] and future legal immigration if they feel future illegal immigration will be stopped and a strengthened border is a good part of that.
One of the ideas Rubio is helping develop would shift the responsibility of developing a border-security strategy from the Department of Homeland Security to Congress.
Rubio also has worked with Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, who is proposing a sweeping amendment that would require 100 percent operational control the U.S-Mexico border before undocumented migrants can get permanent legal status. Cornyn would add more Border Patrol agents and exclude immigrants who have committed more-serious misdemeanors from qualifying for legal status.
Against wobbly signs, GOP strategist Karl Rove, took to The Wall Street Journal on Thursday with a warning:
As the Senate takes up immigration reform next week, Republicans must consider the impressions they will create by what they say, the changes they propose and their votes on the final product.