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Rubio rejects bipartisan immigration gang

Marco Rubio is done with gang life in the Senate.

The Florida GOP senator, a key co-author of the 2013 Gang of Eight comprehensive immigration bill, has no plans to join a swelling bipartisan group of senators trying to strike a deal to protect Dreamers. In an interview, the Cuban-American senator said that with Republicans in full control of Washington, a gang of senators from each party will not dictate Congress’ solution to protecting hundreds of thousands of young immigrants from deportation.

“I don’t believe that what we’re going to end up doing here can be a product of a gang,” Rubio said. “There won’t be a 12-person gang. What we do here cannot be a product of a group of people that come out of a room and say: ‘This is a direction we’re going.’”

In fact, other senators say Rubio prefers a more conservative approach than the bipartisan group. And his reluctance to join the new gang underscores the steep challenge — and sense of pessimism — for reaching an agreement on a tight schedule that can win support from the House, Senate and President Donald Trump.

Senators want to write a bill that can get 60 votes in the Senate by mid-February and hope it will then pass the House and get Trump’s signature.

But without Rubio’s support, Republicans say it will be difficult to pass immigration legislation given Rubio’s experience on the topic and his backstory growing up in Miami as the child of Cuban immigrants.

“He’s a bellwether on this issue as to what can happen, what can pass, what cannot,” said Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, a fellow Republican from South Florida. “His voice could either be exceedingly helpful or help kill something. I think he carries that much clout on this issue.”

And Rubio is strongly signaling that he will not support whatever emerges from breakneck negotiations based on a bill from Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) that would provide some young immigrants with a pathway to citizenship and billions for border security. Instead, Rubio has spoken in private GOP lunches enthusiastically about restricting family-based migration and indicated to Republicans he believes what can become law is something far more conservative than that bipartisan bill, according to GOP senators.

Three GOP senators said in interviews that the recently-reelected Rubio is privately aligning with a group of immigration hard-liners behind a bill that would cut some legal immigration and further limit refugees. Asked directly, Rubio did not specifically say he would back the measure by Sens. David Perdue (R-Ga.) and Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), but said “there’s a lot of concepts in that bill I could support.”

And he insisted that it’s not because his views on immigration have changed or that he’s become more conservative on the matter. Instead, he said, a bipartisan gang seems to ignore the political reality in Washington that Senate Democrats are no longer in the driver’s seat.

“The difference between now and ‘13 is that there’s a Republican in the White House and a Republican majority in the Senate,” Rubio said. “The 2013 bill was designed through the context of a Democratic Senate and a Democratic president. Now we have a Republican Senate, a Republican House and a Republican president.”

The Florida senator joined more than 30 of his colleagues at a short immigration meeting on Wednesday and has had private conversations with Sens. Angus King (I-Maine) and Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) about immigration. But some of his fellow former Gang members are puzzled by Rubio’s decision to stay away from their group.

Asked where Rubio has been, Durbin replied: “Nowhere.”

“During his Gang of Eight time he was totally personally engaged. I’ve talked to him directly a few times, other people have talked to him. I don’t know where he stands,” Durbin said.

Rubio’s support for the Gang of Eight bill in 2013 and subsequent moves away from such a wide-ranging immigration solution are a major source of discontent from Democrats who believed he abandoned the legislation just when his fellow gang members felt they most needed a prominent conservative voice. Instead the House never took it up, Rubio decided that big immigration bills don’t work and then he ran for president — where his role in the immigration talks hung over him in the GOP primary.

Rubio has long maintained that’s inaccurate to lay the blame for immigration reform’s failure in the House on any senator or the Senate.

“Honestly, he feels he got really burned” in 2013, said one of Rubio’s GOP colleagues. “He’s gone through this experience and is like: ‘Why would I do this again?’”

Like Rubio, Diaz-Balart said some immigration reform advocates refuse to recognize that the issue will be handled in a more conservative fashion than the failed 2013 Gang of Eight bill now that Washington is under complete GOP control. And that’s driven Republicans apart: Some like Graham are working as part of the swelling bipartisan group, while other Republicans like Perdue and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) are meeting without Democrats.

“He reflects a different view than Graham for sure,” said a Republican senator of Rubio. “He is not necessarily where anybody assumes he is.”

Plus Rubio keeps saying nice things about the bill written by Perdue and Cotton, a bill some Senate Democrats say is “nativist” for cutting immigration levels.

“Marco’s been very supportive of it,” Perdue said.

Rubio says he doesn’t disavow the Gang of Eight bill and seems encouraged to see new GOP senators like Thom Tillis of North Carolina and James Lankford of Oklahoma step into prominent roles in immigration talks this time around. And he said he’s not signaling a conservative turn by largely staying out of the bipartisan talks, at least for now.

Instead, he says he’s just acknowledging political reality: That a big bill written by a band of senators from both parties is no longer the way to get a solution before the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program expires in March, though that deadline is murkier because a court has ordered the administration to start taking DACA renewals again.

“We don’t have a lot of time here to get a result. We have a 40-day period. We don’t have a lot of time here for an extended back and forth,” Rubio said. “What we do now [needs to be] as narrow and as focused as possible. The bigger this bill is, the harder it will be to pass.”

Marc Caputo contributed to this report.

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