In the end, immigration reform really was a done deal in the Senate. Debates come down to numbers on Capitol Hill, and the Gang of Eight reform team had the numbers. Needing 60 votes to overcome a filibuster, they started with the Senate’s 54 Democrats and then added the four Republican Gang members. With 58 votes in the bag, it wasn’t hard to get to 60. So most of the 14 Republicans who ultimately voted for the bill were extras, not needed for passage but helpful to allow the reformers to claim a broad mandate.
From the beginning, many Senate Republicans were terrified of immigration reform. They knew a large part of their base opposed any measure that smelled of “amnesty.” But they were also deeply shaken by last November’s election results, in which Mitt Romney won just 27 percent of the Hispanic vote. Some GOP strategists, and some Senate colleagues, told them the Republican Party would be finished unless it supported reform.
What to do? First, they tried not to stick their necks out. For several months, if you asked a Republican senator a substantive question about immigration, the answer was, “Let’s see what Marco comes up with.”
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio has been more than the GOP point man on immigration. From January, when the Gang of Eight announced its intentions, until April, when it unveiled its bill, Rubio was the man Republicans hid behind. “We’re waiting for Marco” became the Senate Republican caucus’s unofficial position on immigration.
After the Gang unveiled its bill, one might have expected GOP lawmakers to take a stand. Instead, many still deferred to Rubio, saying they were waiting to see what kind of improvements he might deliver.
Republicans were able to keep their heads down in part because there wasn’t a lot of pressure coming from the anti-reform conservative base. And that owed a great deal to the Gang’s decision to dispatch Rubio, elected as a Tea Party favorite in 2010 and viewed as a future leader of the Republican Party, on a mission to allay conservative suspicions about the bill.
“Menendez told me that Rubio’s role was to ‘work over the conservative universe, particularly the conservative opinion-maker universe,’ in order to ‘neutralize them’ and, in some cases, ‘proselytize them,’” The New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza reported recently, referring to Democratic Gang member Robert Menendez. The leader of the Gang, Democrat Charles Schumer, “was delighted to have a Tea Party conservative who could sell an immigration bill to the right,” Lizza wrote.
The plan worked brilliantly. Conservative talk-radio hosts who might have instinctively opposed immigration reform as conceived by Schumer gave Rubio a respectful hearing and a lot of room. When Rubio told them the bill would secure the border first, they believed him.
Later, when it became unavoidably clear that, in fact, the bill would first legalize millions of currently illegal immigrants, and only after that start the work of securing the border, some conservatives began to express skepticism, disappointment and opposition. But Rubio’s neutralization campaign had bought the Gang precious months to write the bill and gather momentum before conservatives began to realize what was actually in it.
The Gang also got lucky. During the time the bill was under consideration, a lot of Republicans became distracted by various Obama administration troubles — IRS targeting of conservatives, Justice Department spying on the press, NSA spying on everyone else, Benghazi. Immigration reform was simply less exciting than the latest scandal that might bring down the president. Then came Edward Snowden’s catch-me-if-you-can flight, and, lastly, two big Supreme Court decisions that overshadowed immigration reform’s final week in the Senate.
All that news tended to obscure the deep divisions inside the GOP over reform. Even with 14 Republicans voting yes on the Gang bill, more than twice that number, 32, voted no. And then, of course, there is the GOP-controlled House, where reform might well die.
But the Senate is finished, at least for now. Over the last several months, beyond deferring to Rubio, the only other thing some Republicans would say about immigration was, “We need to put this issue behind us.” They were speaking politically, in the hope that they could vote for the Gang of Eight bill and then begin to reap benefits with Hispanic voters.
That’s highly unlikely, but one thing is for sure: They have disappointed a lot of their conservatives supporters, most likely for a long time.
Byron York is chief political correspondent for The Washington Examiner.