What Congress's Immigration Response Will Mean for the Senate's 2016 Contenders

For Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, and Ted Cruz, immigration outcomes offer different political benefits.

National Journal

House Republican leaders appear poised to postpone a major funding fight over President Obama's executive action on immigration until at least a few months into the next Congress, and Speaker John Boehner is optimistic he can cut a deal for his party's conference that keeps the government open past the Dec. 11 deadline and avoids any holiday shutdown scenario.

But in the next few months, how Republicans respond to Obama's executive action could still significantly affect the prospects of senators weighing a 2016 presidential bid, who will be sharpening their reputations and legacies before hitting the trail.

For each potential candidate, the opportunities and costs ahead are vastly different depending on how Congress moves forward.

A government funding fight hasn't yet hurt Sen. Ted Cruz among Republicans. Cruz has made his reputation as a rabble-rouser in Congress, and ever since Obama announced he would shield up to 5 million immigrants from deportation, the Texas senator has made it clear he is not afraid of a confrontation with the White House. Of the potential 2016 candidates in the Senate, Cruz released the most contentious plan for how Republicans should halt Obama's executive action. Cruz encouraged soon-to-be Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to stall most of Obama's judicial and executive nominees in the next Congress, and he also has said he wants Congress to use its power of the purse to defund Obama's executive action in coming months.

The plan sounded similar to what Cruz touted in October 2013, when he floated the option of holding government money hostage in exchange for dismantling Obamacare. That strategy eventually led to a 17-day government shutdown.

Politically, however, Cruz was not hurt by the hard-charging politicking. A poll following the shutdown showed that his favorability among Republicans remained in the low 60 percent range after the shutdown. If Cruz's primary interest is in making a splash in the primary, he may be in the best position to weather a funding showdown. Cruz's insistence on putting his cowboy boot down to stop executive overreach is a key way he rakes in campaign cash and raises his profile. For him, a right turn in a GOP-led Congress, where Cruz already holds sway over conservative members of the House, could mean only one thing—a rise in his own political profile.

Meanwhile, if House leaders can pull off a "Cromnibus," or even a short-term funding bill without a hitch in the next two weeks, it could give Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida a chance to redefine himself on immigration in the next Congress. In 2013, Rubio was at the center of the Senate's comprehensive immigration legislation. Along with Republican Sens. Jeff Flake, John McCain, and Lindsey Graham, Rubio embraced one big bipartisan immigration bill that would have legalized more than 11 million immigrants, bolstered border security, and reworked the nation's visa process. At the time, Rubio was praised by moderates for going out on a limb and being the fresh conservative face of a politically fraught issue. Rubio's tea-party base, however, blasted the freshman senator for negotiating with Democrats like Sen. Chuck Schumer.

Today, Rubio will say he always preferred a piecemeal approach to immigration reform, but that he was limited in 2013 by the parameters set by Democrats who controlled the Senate. If House Republicans can pass a clean continuing resolution, even a shorter-term one without any risk of a political showdown with the White House, Rubio may get his chance to be involved in immigration reform again. Only this time, it'll be with a Republican-controlled Congress where Republicans can pass border security measures first before moving to legalize any immigrants living in the shadows.

"This could be an opportunity for Rubio to show exactly what he wanted to do. He should be involved in the discussions. Instead of being afraid of the issue, he needs to take this opportunity to show he wants to do something different from what the Senate did," said GOP strategist and immigration activist Alfonso Aguilar.

Rubio's been clear that it's not plausible that Republicans can stop Obama's executive order with the type of vote some in the Republican House Conference have called for.

"I would love to be able to say that I could go on the floor now and get a vote to actually do something about it, but I doubt that is going to happen as long as Harry Reid is running the place for the next six weeks.," Rubio said in the immediate aftermath of the president's executive action. "That's why winning the majority was so important."

Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, meanwhile, has managed to avoid being strongly associated with either wing of the Republican Party on immigration reform. If Rubio was ridiculed for being too willing to negotiate and Cruz has been lambasted for not helping soften the party's image on immigration, Paul is a study on a candidate who's managed to float somewhere down the middle.

In 2013, Paul announced he supported legalizing many of the immigrants who entered the country illegally, but in the end, he voted against the Senate's bipartisan immigration bill because it did not secure the border first. Since that time, Paul's been spotted in Iowa sneaking away before being forced to answer a line of questions from a dreamer activist. After Obama announced his executive order on immigration, Paul likened the use of power to President Franklin Roosevelt's order to put Japanese Americans in internment camps during World War II.

For Paul, an all-out funding showdown with the White House over immigration money would not have the potential benefits it might for someone like Cruz, but it's unclear if getting engaged in the messy particulars of actually passing immigration reform, even in a Republican-controlled Congress, might also not be the boom it could be for Rubio.

In the wake of Mitt Romney's defeat in the 2012 presidential contest, the Republican Party released its autopsy to identify ways it could win in future elections. In that report, the party identified comprehensive immigration reform as one way the party could make inroads with the Latino community and improve upon Romney's 27-percent share of the Latino vote. It made special note to emphasize that the GOP should work harder to make its case to minority voters as their share of the electorate was growing.

Some strategists say, however, it is too early for senators like Cruz, Rubio, or Paul to be worrying about how immigration will play into the 2016 math at all.

Dave Carney, a New Hampshire-based Republican strategist, says that the most important step is that all the candidates have already voiced their disapproval of Obama's executive action. Even if something as extreme and unlikely as a government shutdown happened over the immigration action at this point, Carney said it wouldn't have a major effect on Paul, Rubio, or Cruz's 2016 chances.

"This is the problem with the Washington elite, they think America gives a damn about if the government is open," Carney said. "This idea that something that happens in December 2014 will have a definitive and ultimate impact on what happens in November in 2016 is crazy."