Summit: Rubio, Paul, Lee to huddle with House conservatives on immigration next week

The details are vague, but given that Lee’s been skeptical of the Gang of Eight bill and Paul has been scrupulously noncommittal, you can guess whose job it’ll be to sell the bill and its phony border-enforcement requirements to the House.

I’ve written more than once that I don’t think Rubio will be hurt much by his immigration role come 2016, partly because of his shrewd, persistent charm offensive with conservative opinion leaders and partly because he’s been careful lately to criticize the bill himself. We’re getting to crunch time now, though, with the bill set to hit the Senate floor this month. Time to decide whether to stand behind it, warts and all, even as grassroots righties start to focus on its deficiencies, or to reposition himself as an ally of the House in trying to make it more conservative.

Maybe that’s what this meeting is really about — not so much Rubio as Senate envoy to the House but Rubio as budding House envoy to the Senate.

Wednesday’s forum represents the first significant bicameral discussion on the divisive subject of immigration reform. The event, which will be moderated by RSC Chairman Steve Scalise, will include commentary from three RSC members playing pivotal roles in the policy process: Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., who chairs the House Judiciary Committee; Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., who chairs the House Immigration Subcommittee; and Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, viewed as the leading voice on immigration matters among House conservatives…

The three confirmed Senate attendees, all of whom rode tea party support to 2010 victories, represent diverse viewpoints on the issue of immigration reform. Rubio, the most high-profile member of the Senate “Gang of Eight,” has been attempting to assuage conservative fears about providing citizenship to millions of illegal immigrants without first installing border security triggers. Paul is seen as a critical swing vote on the Gang of Eight bill, having spoken favorably about the idea of eventually legalizing those who are living in the U.S. illegally — as long as they aren’t given preferential status over those who have been waiting in line. Lee, who was once involved in the Gang of Eight talks, eventually defected and later voted against the group’s proposal, citing his opposition to a pathway to citizenship and special treatment for agricultural workers…

While House conservatives have yet to see any legislative language from their chamber, Wednesday’s forum will expose them to an intensive lobbying effort from like-minded conservatives who will come to argue different sides of the same case. In that sense, Wednesday’s event is shaping up like a court proceeding, with Rubio defending the Gang of Eight proposal, Lee prosecuting it, and Paul serving as the star witness.

The Senate’s amnesty supporters want 70 votes in favor of the Gang’s bill rather than 60 in order to put bipartisan pressure on the House to pass it. Grassroots amnesty backers don’t like that idea, though, because they fear (probably correctly) that to pick up 10 extra Senate Republicans the bill will have to be made more conservative, which, heaven forbid, might mean adding real border-security provisions. Why strain hard to get those votes when they’re not sure yet that even a revised bill can pass the House? The only way to convince Senate fencesitters to take a very tough vote in favor is to give them some confidence that that vote will mean something, i.e. that whatever the Senate passes stands a chance of being accepted, in large part, in the other chamber. You don’t get to 218 in the House by first getting to 70 in the Senate, in other words, you get to 218 first and then use that as an incentive to shake loose the votes you need to get to 70. That’s probably Rubio’s mission in all this — do his level best to sell House conservatives on making the final bill as liberal and pro-amnesty as the Gang desires, and then come back to the Senate with the House’s list of bare-minimum demands for changes. He’s always been the chief broker for immigration reform. He’s just making that role more explicit now.

Even so, his calculated hedging lately in publicly criticizing the bill is making some amnesty shills nervous:

Frank Sharry, head of the immigration advocacy group America’s Voice, said Rubio’s comments made him “anxious” and cautioned that the lawmaker must avoid taking his message too far.

“Rubio is uniquely qualified to talk to conservatives about immigration reform,” Sharry said. “On the other hand, if he thinks now that he’s the face of immigration reform, that he’s going to drive this bill in a direction that makes it less palatable for the progressive coalition that created the political space for reform, it’s going to be a huge problem.”…

David Leopold, general counsel for the American Immigration Lawyers Association, which supports immigration reform, said Rubio was “pushing the envelope.”

“Rubio needs to back up this bill,” Leopold said. “To offer a bill, to sit down and roll up your sleeves and write a bill with Democrats – I’m not going to discount that that took guts – but in that same vein, he needs to go into his caucus and sell this bill as a champion and not as a critic.”

Watching Rubio demand changes to the bill reminds me a little of Obama lamenting during his drone speech last week that the United States had been reduced to force-feeding hunger-striking Gitmo detainees. (“Is this who we are?”) That’s classic Obama, as John Podhoretz noted the next day: It’s his policy, but rather than own it and take the heat for it, President Above the Fray prefers to distance himself from it with criticism while quietly keeping the policy intact. He gets the result he wants plus some cheap respect from his base for seeming kinda sorta opposed to it deep down in his heart. Rubio, who’s been compared to Obama in endless ways, is following a similar playbook here. It’s his immigration bill — but clearly it needs to be changed and he’s darned angry about the border provisions that he spent months defending, etc etc. Just think how disappointed in the bill he’ll sound in his final floor speech before he votes for it.