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Rubio to GOP: Don't pass my immigration bill!

Marco Rubio co-wrote the Senate's immigration bill. Now he's telling House Republicans not to pass it. Has the Tea Party turned him?
Marco Rubio
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., arrives for the Senate Republicans' policy lunch in the Capitol on Tuesday, Sept. 17, 2013.
Senator Marco Rubio is bailing on his own immigration bill. 

Not only is the senator from Florida now telling House Republicans not to pass the Senate legislation he co-sponsored and championed for months -- he's urging them not to negotiate with the Senate at all.

In a brutal twist for reform, Rubio's office told conservative news outlet Breitbart on Sunday that Speaker Boehner should not go to conference with the Senate to pass a final bill. That's the position anti-immigration House Republicans have taken for months, but the whole reason they oppose Senate talks is that they're scared Boehner will cut a deal that's -- well, that's just like Rubio's bill.

"An 'all or nothing' strategy on immigration reform would result in nothing," Rubio spokesman Alex Conant told msnbc. "What is keeping us from progress on a series of immigration issues on which there is strong consensus is the fear that a conference committee on a limited bill will be used to negotiate a comprehensive one. We should take that option off the table so that we can begin to move on the things we agree on."

Instead, Rubio is suggesting the House pass a series of piecemeal bills that could fall short of a comprehensive package, a direction Conant called more "realistic."

Rubio's new position is a shocking turnaround, considering many believed he would use his conservative star power to give the Republican-controlled House cover for a tough vote on immigration reform. The hope among national Republicans when Rubio joined the Senate's efforts was that its passage would both move the party forward and leave Rubio well-positioned for a presidential run.

"He gets some heat from the right and, before you know it, the boy wonder retreats and dissembles," Frank Sharry, president of America's Voice, told msnbc. 

The "pass it piecemeal" line is what House Republicans are already doing. Democrats have shown some willingness to entertain the approach, if Republicans included a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants in the mix.

But Rubio downplayed that outcome in a CNN interview, ominously suggesting "there are a handful [of issues] we have no consensus on in this country yet, and those issues may have to be delayed at some point until we can reach a consensus on how to approach them."

Rubio was always the most reluctant member of the "Gang of 8" that passed the Senate bill, but that's what made him arguably its most valuable piece. After previously opposing legal status and citizenship for undocumented immigrants, Rubio embraced the issue after the 2012 elections and campaigned hard in right-wing circles for a solution. There were certain points in the run-up to the Senate vote where his dedication to the cause seemed shaky, but immigration advocates always defended those previous lapses as part of a strategy to get conservatives on board.

That was the old Rubio, though. After his bill passed, he immediately pivoted to attacking Obamacare, an issue that -- unlike immigration -- was universally popular among the Tea Party voters he needs to win the nomination in 2016. At the same time, Ted Cruz emerged as a superstar on the hard right, taking over the conservative savior role that Rubio used to occupy in 2010. Now, with immigration reform at a critical juncture, Rubio's making clear to conservatives he won't burn them again.

Ali Noorani, whose group National Immigration Forum is bringing hundreds of conservative leaders to Washington on Tuesday to lobby for reform, said he couldn't understand Rubio's motives even from a raw political perspective.

"It's a real mystery," he told msnbc. "Find me a politician who's won on the 'I was for it before I was against it' strategy."

Rubio's comments come as a handful of House Repubicans in Latino-heavy districts are moving the opposite direction and coming out more forcefully for reform. Over the weekend, Congressman Jeff Denham of California became the first Republican to sign onto a Democratic immigration bill modeled on Rubio's Senate plan, Arizona Congressman Trent Franks suggested he was open to a path to citizenship, and Congressman Joe Heck of Nevada put out a tough statement pushing Republicans to hurry up and pass major legislation. But it's hard to tell whether their movement signals  momentum for a bill or just that vulnerable Republican are distancing themselves from the party ahead of its failure. 

Denham told reporters on Monday that he agreed with Rubio that the Senate bill couldn't pass the House without changes, but "the best solution is going to be conferencing the two houses together."

A House Democratic aide working on immigration said Rubio's move "does not help," but that they never bet too hard on him staying loyal.

"He is not someone we spend a lot of time thinking about here in the House and has always seemed to have one foot in and one foot out, trying to read the 2016 political winds," the aide said. Instead, the focus has been on winning over Republican leaders in the House, who are still signalling at least the slightest interest in passing a bill.

But with Rubio out of the mix, wavering House Republicans will lose a major source of conservative backup for a deal. Most of the other major Republican figures most associated with the issue, like John McCain and Lindsey Graham, are persona non grata among the talk radio crowd. Only Rubio could effectively make the case for reform to someone like Sean Hannity or Rush Limbaugh without getting eviscerated on-air. Losing him may not doom immigration reform, but it's the worst omen of the year for its chances.