While Rubio Holds His Fire, Cruz and Paul Attack on the Next Immigration Front

Unlike the Senate's other two GOP presidential contenders, Marco Rubio hasn't taken a stance on Loretta Lynch's nomination.

National Journal

With the Department of Homeland Security on the verge of a shutdown over immigration policy, Sens. Ted Cruz and Rand Paul have been sounding the drums of war over the next big immigration battle: Loretta Lynch's nomination to be attorney general.

But so far, Sen. Marco Rubio has been silent.

The dynamic reflects how each man is setting himself up for a potential 2016 presidential run. Cruz and Paul are casting themselves as men of principle, quick to check any issue against their philosophical code and render a judgment they'll stick to. Rubio, meanwhile, is sounding decidedly senatorial, working to build a reputation as an institutionalist in the vein of John McCain, willing to point out bluntly that the current plan isn't working.

Both issues are potential land mines for Rubio's presidential candidacy. The Florida Republican faced massive backlash from conservatives in his party (read: presidential primary voters) for his participation in the Gang of Eight talks to produce comprehensive immigration reform two years ago. Weighing in on either the DHS fight or the Lynch nomination could reopen some old wounds.

The difference between Rubio and his fellow White House contenders was on display last week, when he told reporters in Las Vegas that his party's strategy to fund the Department of Homeland Security would not work. "Yeah, we have to fund Homeland Security. Look, I'm in favor of any measure that has a chance of succeeding that could stop the new order, but the truth of the matter is the president's not going to sign it and we don't have the votes to pass it in the Senate. We can't let Homeland Security shut down," Rubio said.

The conserva-sphere flew into a blind panic. Cruz and other conservatives had for weeks been pushing Republican leadership to continue pushing the House-passed DHS bill that would defund the president's executive action, despite a persisting Democratic filibuster. Now, they argued, here was Rubio calling for a clean bill.

In fact, Rubio's office later clarified, he wasn't calling for a clean bill. Rubio wasn't calling for anything. He was simply pointing out that the current plan wasn't working, not offering up a new one. What Rubio was really saying was nothing new to those on Capitol Hill or to anyone who has followed the DHS funding debate over the last two months. And he reiterated his stance Monday during a testing-the-waters visit to New Hampshire, saying: "I don't believe we should pass a clean DHS bill."

As was the case with Lynch's nomination, what Rubio was really saying on DHS was nothing much at all.

Early this year, Cruz and Paul came out fiercely against the DOJ nominee, with the former urging Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to block her nomination entirely until Obama surrendered on his own executive action. Paul, meanwhile, cited her "track record of violating the individual freedoms granted to us by our Constitution" and unwillingness to declare the U.S. drone program illegal, in addition to his concerns about her support for the executive action.

But Rubio has said almost nothing about Lynch. When asked about her nomination two weeks ago, the Florida Republican said he was still considering it, leaning on Senate procedure and the way things are typically done in the upper chamber as he bides his time making a decision on the nomination. Rubio told The Hill that he had not yet read the transcripts from her confirmation hearings (which had taken place two weeks before).

Rubio missed votes Monday evening due to campaign events in New Hampshire and was not available to comment. Spokeswoman Brooke Sammon said in an email Monday that the office had no further comment on Lynch. "We don't comment on nominations until after the Committee has completed its process," Sammon said.

Rubio won't have much more time before he'll need to make a decision about Lynch. Her nomination is expected to clear the Judiciary Committee on Thursday and could reach the floor as soon as next week.

Rubio's rhetoric on the DHS bill—or lack thereof—is similar to that of Republican leaders, who have been reluctant to say much more on the issue than that the department should maintain funding and that Obama's immigration action should be reversed. And on Lynch, a number of other Republicans have yet to comment, particularly those members who, like Rubio, do not sit on the Judiciary Committee. (Cruz sits on the committee, but Paul—like Rubio—does not.)

Both issues serve to draw a sharp contrast between Rubio and his potential opponents for the 2016 nomination. Where Cruz and Paul are jumping eagerly into the fray, Rubio is taking a more measured approach.

Rubio seems to be following the path he laid out for himself when asked about a potential presidential run during the last campaign. As he told David Gregory in 2012: "If I do a good job in the Senate, if I'm a serious policymaker, if I take my time to put forward bills as opposed to, you know, bumper-sticker solutions, like I've tried to do with this immigration issue, then I think six years from now, I'll have a lot of opportunities to do different things in politics, outside of politics."