By Manu Raju
January 15, 2013
So much for a 2016 rivalry.
Sen. Marco Rubio and Rep. Paul Ryan, two possible contenders for the GOP presidential nomination, may be partners when it comes to one of the biggest wedge issues for the Republican Party: immigration.
The 41-year-old Florida senator and the 42-year-old Wisconsin congressman have quietly been discussing whether they can team up on the hot-button issue in the new Congress. If they do partner, not only would it neutralize the issue in a possible presidential primary fight, it would be a major sign that the next generation of Republican leaders are eager to move past the raw immigration politics that have sent Latino voters in droves to the Democratic Party.
Rubio is working on several bills with both Democrats and Republicans that he hopes to introduce in the coming weeks. Among them: a proposal with Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) dealing with migrant and seasonal agricultural workers; a measure with Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) to overhaul the visa process for high-skilled immigrants; and Rubio’s alternative to the DREAM Act to help certain undocumented young people achieve a permanent legal status.
It’s unclear which of these approaches Ryan may ultimately back, but the GOP’s 2012 vice presidential candidate gave a resounding endorsement to Rubio’s overall efforts in a statement earlier this week. And behind the scenes, the two men are quietly seeing whether they can forge a partnership rarely seen among top-level prospective political rivals from the same party.
Rubio and Ryan met face to face in December and discussed several legislative issues, including immigration reform. Since then, their staffs and the two men have traded various ideas, aides to both men said Tuesday.
In an interview, Rubio acknowledged having conversations with Ryan and said the Wisconsin Republican will be an “indispensable player at the right time” over immigration. “We have a great working relationship, and I think he can be a key player in anything we do moving forward,” Rubio said.
Ryan, better known on fiscal issues as chairman of the House Budget Committee, declined to be interviewed for this story and has been vague on his preferred approaches on immigration policy. When Ryan spoke about the issue on the campaign trail, it was mostly to blame Obama for not delivering on a first-term promise.
A Ryan aide said Tuesday the congressman “supports the principles outlined by Sen. Rubio and will continue to work with Sen. Rubio and members on both sides of the aisle to fix our broken immigration system.” On his Facebook page Monday, Ryan said that he backs the broad tenants Rubio has identified: “modernization of our immigration laws; stronger security to curb illegal immigration; and respect for the rule of law in addressing the complex challenge of the undocumented population.”
Ryan’s efforts on immigration could also help him distance himself from Mitt Romney and the failed 2012 campaign. Romney ran to the right in the Republican primary last year, favoring self-deportation and other tough measures against illegal immigrants, leaving many in the party believing it’s time to soften the rhetoric.
“I think it has hurt our party,” said Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho), the conservative who was born in Puerto Rico and also has emerged as a leader in the House on the issue. “The rhetoric always needs to change. I think we need to let people understand that we’re a party of inclusion, we need to let people understand that we want them, we welcome immigrants, and we welcome anybody who wants to join our party.”
Rubio and Ryan spoke with Labrador recently about immigration. And last month, Ryan reached out to Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) — a staunch advocate on the left for immigration reform — to discuss whether there were bipartisan possibilities in dealing with this issue.
“They both are serious,” said Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), who is close with Ryan. “Rubio has been trying to fix this for a long time. Ryan has been heavily engaged for a long time — it’s something that needs to be done, needs to be fixed.”
A Rubio-Ryan détente on immigration would still leave the two men at odds on other issues. They split on the first big post-election vote, as Rubio joined four other GOP senators in voting against the deal to avert the fiscal cliff, while Ryan voted with a minority of House Republicans in favor of the deal.
But even if Rubio and Ryan do team up on immigration — and remain united once legislation starts moving — there’s no guarantee they will bring the rest of Congress with them. Many Republicans remain staunchly opposed to any bill that whiffs of “amnesty” for the nation’s 11 million illegal immigrants. And Democratic leaders in the Senate insist that any immigration bill must include a pathway to “earned” citizenship for the country’s undocumented workers, something they want as a piece of a comprehensive immigration bill early this year.
“From a political standpoint, the Republicans risk splitting their party, alienating their base, while getting no credit from the small base of voters for whom amnesty is the driving issue,” said Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which warns that looser immigration laws will cost Americans their jobs.
During the campaign season, Ryan didn’t get too far ahead of many in his party who advocate stricter laws against illegal immigrants.
“It is a frustrating process for legal immigrants to come here and enter the country legally,” Ryan said at an Ohio rally in September. “And when you have illegal immigration and the violation of the rule of law, it does a disservice to the people who work hard and play by the rules and come to the country legally. We need to respect them by having a system that works.”
After losing the Latino vote by wide margins, the latest efforts by both Rubio and Ryan show how influential GOP voices in Congress believe they can no longer afford to be seen as hostile toward Latino voters. Rubio, one of three Latino senators, began to take a more prominent role in the debate last year when he proposed a way for children of illegal immigrants who completed high school or military service to eventually be eligible for citizenship which falls short of Democratic proposals to create a special pathway for citizenship.
But he dropped his effort last June when Obama made an executive decision allowing certain young people who entered the United States before the age of 16 to get a two-year deferral from deportation and apply for work permits.
Since then, Rubio has treaded cautiously, declining to sign on to a DREAM Act alternative plan in late November by retiring GOP Sens. Jon Kyl of Arizona and Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas — even though the two had consulted with Rubio for months.
In the interview, Rubio said he’s not concerned about blowback from the right and promised to renew his effort this year.
“I think where the vast majority of people in the conservative movement are, they are looking for a real solution to this problem that isn’t blanket amnesty and even isn’t a special pathway to citizenship but deals with this issue,” Rubio said.