WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Senate on Thursday approved the most sweeping changes to immigration law in nearly three decades, offering up to 11 million illegal immigrants a path to citizenship while spending tens of billions on a massive security buildup along the southern border with Mexico.
The momentous vote, emphasized by a 68-32 majority that included 14 Republicans, is a sign of how far immigration reform has come since the last attempt collapsed in 2007. But the triumph appears fleeting. The GOP-controlled House has signaled strong opposition to the bill.
The scrambled dynamic held for the man in the spotlight, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who helped write the bill and bring along fellow Republicans but who has also become maligned by conservatives who saw him as the next president.
Increasingly, on TV, conservative talk radio and social media, Rubio has been cast as a sellout, liar and flip-flopper. This was the 2010 candidate who in a debate declared that “earned path to citizenship is basically code for amnesty.” The bill passed Thursday has an earned path, requiring immigrants to pay taxes, fines and wait at least a decade before getting permanent residency.
Conservative commentator Erick Erickson wrote this week that Rubio had moved a step closer to a Charlie Crist-like hug of President Barack Obama.
“He’s really hurt himself with the tea party,” said Ron Kirby, 68, of Alexandria, Va., who stood outside the Capitol in protest of the immigration bill Thursday, echoing criticism that it does not adequately secure the border while giving amnesty to immigrants who broke the law.
After the vote, the bipartisan group of senators who crafted the bill declared victory and said the vote would pressure the House to take action. But Rubio was a no-show.
While the damage is measurable — a Washington Post/ABC News poll this week showed Rubio’s favorability rating among Republicans has slid 11 points since August 2012 — it’s too soon to know if it is enduring.
Rubio’s involvement in a complex issue has brought him praise, from even some of the Republicans who voted against the bill, and added heft to a résumé that until now has featured rhetorical grace over legislative accomplishment.
“I don’t have any idea how long any of the negative repercussions might last,” said Dana Perino, a Republican consultant and Fox News commentator.
“What I’ve admired is that he consistently has stayed on the merits, calm and collected, regardless of some of the vile things people have said about him. We can’t expect our elected leaders to always vote the way we personally would. If that was the case, our system wouldn’t work. We have to trust that they will make the best decisions as they call them.”
In a speech on the Senate floor Wednesday, Rubio directly addressed the fallout among conservatives, calling it a “real trial for me.” But unlike his dithering in past weeks — moves that annoyed Gang of 8 colleagues — he made a forceful case for why he felt the bill was necessary, emphasizing even more border security that was added to the bill with Rubio’s help.
“In my heart and in my mind, I know that we must solve this problem once and for all, or it will only get worse. It will only get harder to solve,” Rubio said.