WASHINGTON -- U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio stepped off the trolley that takes lawmakers from their offices to the Capitol, and as he brushed past Sen. Jeff Sessions, he suggested his colleague get lost in Hawaii for the week.
They laughed but the young Republican from Florida could only dream.
Rubio is trying to pass the most far-reaching immigration bill in nearly three decades. Sessions, R-Ala., is trying to stomp it dead, one speech, one ominous warning at a time, a relentless, if untheatrical, quest for the same success he had in 2007, the last time Congress attempted immigration reform.
“I just hammered the bill, pointed out the problems day after day and the opposition grew,” said Sessions, who bears the studious countenance of an Eagle Scout. “I think it can happen again. Although I’ll acknowledge the forces are there. The odds are different this time. But I’m going to oppose it with all the ability I have.”
There are other critics of the legislation, but none as persistent as Sessions, a courtly and compact 66-year-old former federal prosecutor from Mobile who is driven by a sense of law and order and concern for American jobs that, he says, are being taken and undervalued by illegal workers.
“Somebody needs to say, ‘Why has daddy not been able to get a job?’ ” Sessions said in an interview with the Tampa Bay Times where he streamed figures, assertions and unwavering conviction. After nearly 40 minutes standing outside the Senate chamber, he started to walk away then turned back for more, comparing the more than 1,000-page bill to the health care law.
“I don’t underestimate Sen. Sessions for a moment,” said Sen. Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat who, like Rubio, was part of the bipartisan Gang of 8 that wrote the immigration bill. “I don’t underestimate his attempt to create doubt, to create fear, to undermine the very essence of what has been a very tough but fair bill. But the tide of history has changed.”
The November election lit a fire under the GOP, which has performed miserably with a growing Hispanic population while white male voters are decreasing as a share of the electorate. Republican leaders are convinced immigration reform will help and have encouraged Rubio, 42 and the son of Cuban immigrants, to take the lead.
“He didn’t come here to be a potted plant. I respect that,” Sessions said, conceding that Rubio’s likability and aggressive conservative media outreach make his job harder. But in his soft Southern lilt, Sessions offered criticism: “He hasn’t had the in-depth experience with these issues that I have.”
During a radio interview Tuesday, Sessions mocked how TV ads featuring Rubio are portraying the bill as containing the toughest border enforcement ever while the lawmaker has been saying it needs to get tougher to earn his support.
“Makes you want to say, ‘Marco, there’s somebody on television pretending to be you,’ ” said Sessions, whose attacks on the bill have fed a growing conservative backlash toward Rubio, punctuated by a tea party rally in Washington on Wednesday where homemade signs read “Rubio RINO” — Republican in name only.
Hawaii may not be far enough away.
Sessions, who grew up in rural Hybart, the son of a general store owner, was first elected to the Senate in 1996 but was indoctrinated in Washington politics a decade earlier when President Ronald Reagan put him up for a judgeship. Today Sessions sits on the same Judiciary Committee that scuttled his nomination amid charges of racial insensitivity. In one instance, a critic testified that Sessions said he liked the Ku Klux Klan until learning its members smoked marijuana. A joke, Sessions said. Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., called him a “throwback to a shameful era,” a remark Sessions years later called the most unkind thing ever said about him.