WASHINGTON (News-Press.com) - Florida GOP Sen. Marco Rubio is backing off his push for comprehensive immigration reform, opting instead to pursue a piecemeal approach favored by House Republican leaders.
Rubio was a key player on the bipartisan "Gang of Eight" that conceived, wrote and sold a Senate bill aimed at tightening border security, revamping the nation's visa program and providing a path to citizenship for an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants.
The bill was approved 68-32 in June. It has stalled in the House, where GOP leaders oppose the citizenship provision. They would rather address immigration through a series of bills, most dealing with security.
Immigration activists praised Rubio following the Senate vote. Tea party activists denounced him for backing what they call amnesty for immigrants in the country illegally and said they were rethinking their support for him if he runs for president in 2016.
Now, Rubio's immigration strategy has abruptly pivoted from a comprehensive approach to the go-slow strategy backed by the House.
In interviews with reporters this week, the son of Cuban immigrants said he still supports a comprehensive bill, but he's being "realistic" about what can be achieved given the House's resistance.
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 continued. "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."
That's not sitting well with immigration activists.
They view the move as a betrayal and an attempt by Rubio to revive his flagging presidential aspirations. Rubio's star has been somewhat eclipsed by Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, of Texas, a fellow Cuban-American and tea party favorite for the White House who staunchly opposed the Senate's immigration bill.
"I've been working on this for 25 years and there's no question that the only way you fix any one part is to have a comprehensive approach that addresses all the parts," said Frank Sharry, executive director of the group America's Voice.
Rubio is "tacking to the right to make himself more electable in places like New Hampshire and Iowa," Sharry said. "This is about personal ambition not a concern for proper policy."
Tea party activists aren't impressed, either.
Kathy Jones, president of the Lee County Patriots in Florida, said she thinks Rubio might be trying to appease the Republican base. She said it won't work.
"There are so many of us who will never cast a vote for him again," Jones said. "Those of us who voted for him voted for him based on what he said he was going to do and what his beliefs were. And he stated too many times, unequivocally, (that he) will never support amnesty for illegals."
The Senate bill Rubio championed to conservative audiences would spend more than $40 billion to build more fencing along the Southern border and add more than 20,000 border agents. It would revamp the nation's visa program and beef up workplace verification to make sure jobs are held by legal residents. It also would offer immigrants in the country illegally a 13-year citizenship process, provided certain security benchmarks are met.
Under the House approach, the only bills likely to win approval are those related to security, or pro-business measures that would expand the agricultural workforce or increase the number of high-tech visas, Sharry said.
"Many Republicans want to pass pieces of immigration reform but not deal with the 11 million undocumented immigrants in America," he said. "How can you solve the problem of immigration without dealing with a population the size of Ohio?"