U.S. Senator Marco Rubio talks to reporters on his way to vote on the Senate floor at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, October 12, 2013.
Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Pro-immigration Republicans unhappy with Rubio’s take

Updated

Over the weekend, Marco Rubio told House Republicans to skip his own immigration bill, blow off negotiations with the Senate, and that if they just settled on some smaller measures that don’t deal with undocumented immigrants, it would be okay. 

On Tuesday, hundreds of pro-immigration conservatives gathered in Washington to deliver the opposite message to House Republicans.

Awkward!

Al Cardenas, chair of the American Conservatives Union chairman and a longtime mentor to Rubio, told reporters he was distraught over the Senator’s comments. 

“I don’t understand it,” he said. “I read it and I don’t understand it.”

Cardenas offered his not-mad-just-disappointed take afer leading a panel discussion at the Chamber of Commerce, which hosted a mega-gathering of pro-immigration business owners, religious leaders, and law enforcement. And while attendees were reluctant to speak ill of Rubio personally, they strongly distanced themselves from his newer positions, which many advocates consider a betrayal. 

Most attendees said they were okay with the House’s decision to take up immigration via a series of smaller bills, a plan Rubio endorsed over the weekend. Some Democrats have suggested as much as well. But that’s where the similarities end. Reformers see the House passing smaller bills as the first step towards negotiating a broader package with the Senate in conference that addresses each plank of Rubio’s original bill–issues like border security, guest workers, fixes to the existing visa system, and especially a path to legal status and citizenship for undocumented immigrants. In a major break, Rubio’s office is telling House Republicans to avoid those negotiations, saying they could be a “ruse” to reach a more sweeping deal. 

“It’s fine to applaud the piecemeal approach…and frankly if you want your friends to pass immigration reform it’s a good idea to pat them on the back, so that half of that statement, I understand,” Cardenas said. “That portion about not going to conference, I don’t understand. I’ll need to talk to him personally about it before passing judgement, but on the surface, I wasn’t pleased with it.” 

Until now, the leading advocates of avoiding conference have been anti-immigration activists trying to kill any major legislation out of hand. Heritage Action, for example, is pressuring lawmakers on the conference issue. That’s the same Heritage that decried Tuesday’s pro-immigration gathering as “nothing more than an attempt by big-government, pro-amnesty liberals to co-opt conservative lawmakers” and distributed talking points to Republican aides to counter it. 

Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, said he hoped that Rubio was just sending a coded warning to House and Senate leaders that once they met to reconcile their bills, they don’t have a “greenlight to do anything the guys in the conference want.” But taken literally, he was strongly opposed to the new approach. 

“I understand the concern that in conference something annoying can get slipped in,” Norquist said. “The defense against that is transparency, not avoiding a conference.”

Over on Capitol Hill, key senators also stressed the importance of entering formal negotiations with the House even as they carefully avoided criticizing their colleague. 

“I’ve said all along, the Houses passes something, you go to conference, and hopefully we can get some results,” Senator John McCain, who co-sponsored the Senate bill with Rubio, told msnbc. He added, “I haven’t wavered in that view.” 

“I don’t know how you would end up syncing the two up without a conference,” Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, who negotiated the border security component of Rubio’s bill, said. 

Even Senator John Cornyn, who opposed the Senate bill, told NBC Latino Tuesday that “utlimately [immigration] will have to be resolved in conference committee.”

As for the idea Congress could pass, say, a border security law alone, while leaving the rest to a future Congress, it’s anathema to virtually every pro-immigration group as well as President Obama and Senate Democrats. That’s because the individual pieces of reform are meant to fit together at once: legalization brings existing undocumented immigrants out of the shadows, while new enforcement measures and a streamlined visa process discourage illegal immigration in the future. But Rubio opened the door to that half-loaf scenario on Friday, telling CNN that certain components “may have to be delayed at some point until we can reach a consensus on how to approach them.”  

“Senator Rubio is just trying to make progress on immigration reform, and the best way to make progress is to focus on what we agree on,” Rubio spokesman Alex Conant told msnbc. “We should not waste another opportunity to begin to improve our immigration system, which is what will happen if people stick to an all-or-nothing approach.”

Sheriff Margaret Mims, who flew all the way from Fresno, California, to lobby lawmakers to pass a bill, dismissed Rubio’s suggestion that the House only move forward on “consenus” issues as unworkable.

“I think they all have to come at the same time and it needs to be done quickly and it needs to be done now,” she said. “It really looks weak to try and say let’s do this a little bit at a time.”

While Rubio’s position has few supporters on the pro-reform side, many did go out of their way to praise his previous work on passing the Senate’s bill. Some activists felt the negative reaction to his latest shift was overblown.

“Senator Rubio, I think, has been probably the most important figure to date in getting this legislation as far as it is,” Rob Jesmer, a Republican operative now managing Mark Zuckerberg’s immigration group FWD.us, told msnbc. “With all due respect to all my friends in the reform community, I don’t think the way we get to ultimate passage is by attacking Senator Rubio.”

At least one major reform evangelist, Tamar Jacoby of the business-focused ImmigrationWorks USA, suggested Rubio’s position reflected reality more than his critics acknowledge. 

“I feel like the problem all along has been that people have been asking the House to do stuff they couldn’t do,” she said. “First, it was the Senate bill, then it was comprehensive reform, then path to citizenship, and right now it’s to go to conference, which  not to many House Republicans are in the mood to do–the shutdown was just too bitter an experience.” 

Marco Rubio

Pro-immigration Republicans unhappy with Rubio's take

Updated