WASHINGTON — Whatever immigration deal might be claimed by labor and business, or by Democrats and Republicans, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida is serving notice it has to go through him.
The tea party favorite made it clear over the weekend he has a make-or-break role for the most sweeping immigration changes in decades. It's a high-risk strategy that also puts his presidential ambitions on the line.
Four Republican senators are involved with Democrats in crafting a bipartisan bill to secure the nation's borders, improve legal immigration and offer eventual citizenship to millions now in the U.S. illegally. But only Rubio has the conservative bona fides plus life-story credibility to help steer the bill through the Senate with strong support from the GOP, and give it a chance in the House.
More than anyone else, Rubio, the son of Cuban immigrants, could have the clout to hold off rebellion from conservative talk show hosts and a Republican base whose opposition helped kill immigration changes last time around, in 2007. And perhaps only Rubio could sink the entire effort just by walking away.
If the first-term senator decides against the bill, "that just takes all the oxygen out of the room," said Al Cardenas, chairman of the American Conservative Union. "It may pass the Senate with Democrats' support ... but that's not the kind of support you want out of the Senate if you expect passage out of the House."
With that unique status, Rubio is walking a fine line. He's helping negotiate the politically combustible legislation, which the bipartisan group is expected to unveil next week, while also taking care to maintain the conservative support that makes him so important to the process in the first place.
For Rubio, more so than the other Republicans involved there's danger in a full-throated embrace of comprehensive immigration legislation. For some conservatives, it will always be toxic: It's a priority for Democrats and President Barack Obama that some foes see as granting amnesty to millions of law-breakers.