Florida Sen. Marco Rubio's newly unveiled proposal for sweeping immigration reform looms as a daunting leadership test for a freshman member of Congress on the fast track to the 2016 presidential campaign.
If Rubio can unite the political establishment and the more conservative grassroots behind his plan, the 41-year-old lawmaker could emerge as an unstoppable force in the Republican Party -- and even pique interest among Democrats and independents.
"The party is hungry for a leader who can unite us. The party and the country is hungry for that," said Republican strategist Henry Barbour, who is co-chairing a review of the national party's 2012 campaign and coming up with a blueprint for future elections. "Addition not subtraction wins elections. I'm focused on 2013 and 2014, but the more Rubio shows he can unite our party, the more interesting he will be to people thinking about 2016."
The sticky challenges of navigating the GOP divide were on display when House Speaker John Boehner sought to tame an unruly Republican caucus during the negotiations over the fiscal cliff deal. Immigration reform will strain Rubio's success thus far in keeping one foot in the tea party movement's camp and the other planted in the mainstream.
Even more importantly, his immigration plan could be a turning point for the Republican Party that's been swimming against the demographic tide and subsequently drowning at the polls. If Republicans rally behind the Cuban-American lawmaker's ideas, they would be offering an olive branch to a rapidly growing Hispanic community that resoundingly rejected 2012 nominee Mitt Romney and his hardline stance against illegal immigration. But if the anti-amnesty, extremist voices in the party prevail, the Democratic Party would be poised to strengthen its grip on the Hispanic vote.
"Mending course on immigration is a requirement for Republicans to be able to successfully engage Latino voters," said Clarissa Martinez-De-Castro, director of immigration and national campaigns at the National Council of La Raza, a leading Hispanic advocacy group. "If they stay on the path they are on, they are on their way to political irrelevance."
By describing a broad overhaul of the nation's immigration laws in The Wall Street Journal on Saturday that would smooth a course for both high-skilled immigrants and farmworkers, Rubio answered a question that's dogged his first two years in Washington: Is he willing to lead? Though Rubio has yet to put pen to paper in the form of legislation and delve into the nitty-gritty details, his initiative may dampen criticism that the charismatic politician is more style than substance.
That criticism gained momentum earlier this year when Rubio proposed allowing young illegal immigrants who attend college or join the military to stay in this country. But a bill never materialized and President Obama stole the spotlight by issuing an executive order giving those young people temporary legal status. This time, Rubio appears to be trying to get out ahead of the president, who is expected to talk about his immigration plan in the State of the Union speech next month.
"It's good for Marco Rubio and conservatives to address the issue prior to that, so it doesn't look like they're only reacting to Obama," said Jennifer Korn, executive director of the HispanicLeadership Network, a center-right advocacy group. "We need to be pro-active."
Rubio's framework for immigration reform is already drawing praise from prominent Republicans. "Kudos to Sen. Marco Rubio," said former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush on Twitter. "Sen. Rubio is exactly right on the need to fix our broken immigration system. I support the principles he's outlined," wrote Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the vice presidential nominee in 2012, on Facebook.
Knowing that many Republicans are leery of any plan that allows the 11 million illegal immigrants in this country to earn citizenship, Rubio emphasized to The Wall Street Journal that the path would be arduous. He said undocumented workers would be required to undergo a criminal background check, pay fines and back taxes, and prove longtime residency and knowledge of English before obtaining legal status. Then they could apply for permanent residency and citizenship, though the wait would be longer than if they had come here legally. Border security would also be stepped up.
Rubio is choosing his words carefully, insisting his plan "is not blanket amnesty or a special pathway to citizenship." Advocates of immigration reform under former President George W. Bush and during President Obama's first term say the same about their own plans, which also called for illegal immigrants to pay their dues, so to speak. What's different is the language Rubio is using to try to avoid the pressure points that have doomed previous efforts.
"This is such an emotional and explosive issue, and that the way you frame it needs to be very thoughtful," Korn said. "Defining this to conservatives in the right way is very important."
While the message is important, so is the messenger. Rubio has spent two years courting the conservative base of his party and voting their interests. He recently refused to join other Republicans in supporting the fiscal cliff deal and approving federal aid to Hurricane Sandy victims.
But to some hardliners, any plan that stops short of deporting illegal immigrants is suspect, no matter the packaging or the spokesman. "It's Groundhog Day for immigration policy. It's like yesterday never happened," said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank that promotes stricter limits on immigration, in the National Review Online. "Nothing Rubio's saying is even remotely novel."
Rubio's initiative is the next step in his evolution from state lawmaker to congressional candidate to senator. As the speaker of the Florida House, Rubio chose not to put his considerable political muscle behind proposed crackdowns on illegal immigrants. He even co-sponsored a bill that would allow young illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition rates. But he called for tighter border security and decried amnesty for illegal immigrants as a candidate for the U.S. Senate in 2010, and as a new senator, he retreated on his support for the in-state tuition breaks.
Now he's moderating his course and seeking to be a bridge builder on the issue. It remains to be seen as to whether he can bring his party along with him.
"He has the potential to be a force for building the space in which Republicans are meaningfully considering resolutions to this problem," said Martinez-De-Castro. "The expectations are high for his leadership on this."