WASHINGTON — U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio stepped off the trolley that takes lawmakers from their offices to the Capitol and as he brushed past Sen. Jeff Sessions, he suggested his colleague get lost in Hawaii for the week.
They laughed but the young Republican from Florida could only dream.
Rubio is trying to pass the most far-reaching immigration bill in nearly three decades. Sessions, R-Ala., is trying to stomp it dead, one speech, one ominous warning at a time, a relentless, if untheatrical, quest for the same success he had in 2007, the last time Congress attempted immigration reform.
"I just hammered the bill, pointed out the problems day after day and the opposition grew," said Sessions, who bears the studious countenance of an Eagle Scout. "I think it can happen again. Although I'll acknowledge the forces are there. The odds are different this time. But I'm going to oppose it with all the ability I have."
There are other critics of the legislation, but none as persistent as Sessions, a courtly and compact 66-year-old former federal prosecutor from Mobile who is driven by a sense of law and order and concern for American jobs that, he says, are being taken and undervalued by workers who are here illegally.
"Somebody needs to say, 'Why has daddy not been able to get a job?' " Sessions said in an interview with the Tampa Bay Times where he streamed figures, assertions and unwavering conviction. After nearly 40 minutes standing outside the Senate chamber, he started to walk away then turned back for more, comparing the more than 1,000-page bill to the health care law.
"I don't underestimate Sen. Sessions for a moment," said Sen. Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat who, like Rubio, was part of the bipartisan Gang of 8 that wrote the immigration bill. "I don't underestimate his attempt to create doubt, to create fear, to undermine the very essence of what has been a very tough but fair bill. But the tide of history has changed."
The November election lit a fire under the GOP, which has performed miserably with a growing Hispanic population while white male voters are decreasing as a share of the electorate. Republican leaders are convinced immigration reform will help and have encouraged Rubio, 42 and the son of Cuban immigrants, to take the lead.
"He didn't come here to be a potted plant. I respect that," Sessions said, conceding that Rubio's likability and aggressive conservative media outreach make his job harder. But in his soft Southern lilt, Sessions offered criticism: "He hasn't had the in-depth experience with these issues that I have."
During a radio interview Tuesday, Sessions mocked how TV ads featuring Rubio are portraying the bill as containing the toughest border enforcement ever while the lawmaker has been saying it needs to get tougher to earn his support.
"Makes you want to say, 'Marco, there's somebody on television pretending to be you,' " said Sessions, whose attacks on the bill have fed a growing conservative backlash toward Rubio, punctuated by a tea party rally in Washington on Wednesday where homemade signs read "Rubio RINO" — Republican in name only.
Hawaii may not be far enough away.
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Sessions, who grew up in rural Hybart, Ala., the son of a general store owner, was first elected to the Senate in 1996, but was indoctrinated in Washington politics a decade earlier when President Ronald Reagan put him up for a judgeship. Today Sessions sits on the same Judiciary Committee that scuttled his nomination amid charges of racial insensitivity. In one instance, a critic testified that Sessions said he liked the Ku Klux Klan until learning its members smoked marijuana. A joke, Sessions said. Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., called him a "throwback to a shameful era," a remark Sessions years later called the most unkind thing ever said about him.
He consistently ranks as one of the most conservative members of the Senate, supporting tax cuts, smaller budgets and a federal ban on same-sex marriage. He opposed President George W. Bush's bank bailout and the immigration overhaul Bush sought in 2007.
Then, as now, Sessions said it would reward lawbreakers while providing few safeguards against future illegal immigration and hurting wages of lower skilled American workers. He got a boost last week from the Congressional Budget Office, which said the changes would slightly push down average wages for the first decade. "I am defending poor African-Americans, Hispanics and people of all kinds," Sessions said.
Other detractors focus exclusively on the low hanging fruit of border security. Sessions hits the economic angle, too. "Nobody wants to talk about jobs, wages, unemployment," he said. "You have to criticize Republican business interests."
He sounds alarms not just about the 11 million people already living in the United States illegally but the many millions more that would enter legally if the bill is passed. He raises questions about a provision requiring immigrants who are here illegally to pay back taxes, saying it would be next to impossible to determine who owes what, and scoffs at the $2,000 in fines people would have to pay over a number of years.
Sessions made those points repeatedly when the Judiciary Committee took up the bill last month, but his amendments were shot down. In one stinging rebuke, Sessions was on the losing end of a 17-1 vote to limit the number of immigrants who could legally enter the United States.
Undaunted, he has shown up on the Senate floor every day since the bill came up for general debate, carrying detailed notes. (On his office desk he keeps the durable Boy Scout motto: Be Prepared.) Glasses perched on the tip of his nose, he assails the bill as being worse than the 2007 version, often reaching for and waving around the thick printed copy that sits on his desk. Even so, he does it without the flamboyant outrage that draws the TV cameras. Reporters have increasingly ignored him as the debate wears on, seeing him as an outlier.
That seemed even more evident Thursday as Rubio and other lawmakers announced a major amendment that adds tens of billions in new border security spending, attracting more Republican support. To Sessions, it validated his work.
"Here in the middle of the debate, after the bill has been exposed, after it's been hammered for failure after failure after failure after failure, they come up with a bill that says, 'Don't worry, now we're going to throw 20,000 agents at the border and now you all have to vote for it,' " Sessions said.
"He knows his stuff and he's a good lawyer," said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who secured changes to the bill to favor the high-tech industry in his state, the kind of special interest handout Sessions says is laced throughout the bill. "I differ with him on a number of things but he's totally honest," Hatch continued. "He's what a senator should be. Even if you disagree with him, he's courteous and decent."
Critics say Sessions is hiding his contempt for any kind of immigration reform behind the stated concern for poor workers. "His record shows no consistent opposition to bills that primarily benefit business owners or the wealthy, or that empower labor to wrest more economic gains from capital," the liberal Washington Post writer Ezra Klein recently wrote, listing votes against the payroll tax cut and an extension of unemployment benefits.
Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, said Sessions is filling a leadership void as the GOP seeks to improve its image amid a crowd of other opponents who are afraid to speak up as clearly. "He's not the kind of guy who looks in the mirror and sees a future president."
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Safely re-elected the past two elections, Sessions has little to worry about in Alabama. The issue runs hot there.
The number of immigrants living in the state illegally grew by nearly five times over the last decade, to about 120,000 in 2011, when unemployment hovered around 9 percent. The newcomers started to take jobs in chicken processing plants and in construction, stoking backlash.
In 2011, a year after Republicans captured both chambers of the Alabama Legislature for the first time since Reconstruction, the state enacted the toughest immigration crackdown in the country, exceeding Arizona's law enacted a year earlier.
The law barred undocumented immigrants from enrolling in public colleges and allowed police to stop anyone and ask for documents showing their legal status. Schools and businesses had to check to see if students were legal. Advocates cast it as a job creation and protection bill. But major parts of the law, derided by critics as "Juan Crow," were blocked by a federal appeals court.
Now the state looks to Washington, and to its native son.
"I didn't look forward to this," Sessions said. "It's a very, very unpleasant duty. But I feel I have a duty to point out the weaknesses in this legislation. I'm not going to be part of legislation that will hurt American workers and will not live up to the promise of creating a lawful system for the future."
Contact Alex Leary at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @learyreports.