WASHINGTON — It's one of the most hyped bills on Capitol Hill, and it doesn't even exist.
Three months after U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio revealed he was working on an alternative to the Dream Act, triggering a gusher of positive news coverage, he has yet to produce a written proposal.
The delay is raising expectations but also underscores the political challenge facing the Florida Republican and could elevate cynicism that it is an election-year effort to win Hispanic votes. What is certain is time is running out to do something this year, a reality Rubio acknowledged Wednesday.
"He gets all this sweet press and we haven't seen word one. It is getting a little frustrating," said Frank Sharry, executive director of America's Voice, an immigration reform group that has been receptive to the idea, which would grant legal status to some children of illegal immigrants.
"I don't doubt his sincerity," said Ali Noorani of the National Immigration Forum, "but the benchmark here is legislation. It would be good to see what kind of support he has."
Rubio said in an interview that he understands the anxiety and hopes to have something soon, but he did not offer a time line or reveal the depth of support he has been able to muster.
"What we want to make sure is we have answers to all the questions, that when we propose this, it's not something that immediately people can start attacking," he said. "This is important legislation; it has to be done the right way."
The broad proposal calls for creating nonimmigrant visas for some children of illegal immigrants who have completed high school and are in college. A primary difference with the Dream Act is that it does not create a special pathway to citizenship, which critics view as amnesty.
But many specifics are unknown. It seems plausible the unnamed proposal would cover students brought to the United States when they were young kids, but what about those who were of legal adult age? Rubio said he's trying to determine if it will cost any money and how long a visa would last.
More significantly, he has to contend with the contentious push and pull of immigration policy. Some say the plan does not go far enough; some say it goes too far and have been trying to undercut Rubio's effort. Numbers USA, a group that says illegal immigrants take jobs from citizens, has been faxing and calling Republican senators to dissuade them.
Rubio has been meeting with lawmakers in both parties as he consults with young people who would be affected by the proposal. His strategy appears to be to draw as narrow a scope as possible to accommodate some young people while avoiding the kind of heat that could damage not only the legislation but his political future.
Sharry, who has been critical of the Cuban-American Rubio in the past for adopting hard-line immigration positions, said that despite his frustrations over a lack of a bill, the slow approach may prove smart.
"Normally when a Republican sticks their head out on immigration, they get creamed by the far right," he said "He's showing Republican senators it's not as bad as you think. But that has to be followed by a concrete proposal. If we don't see anything in the next three or four weeks, that's a sign he can't get the support."
Rubio predicted the end product would have "significant" support. He has already managed to secure a receptive tone from some Democrats, who at first scoffed at his effort and insisted on passage of the full Dream Act. Publicly few Republicans have openly embraced the idea and they don't have to given the lack of a bill.
"It's an issue that creates a great amount of discussion and in many cases controversy but at this point until we see something specific, it's hard to know, it's hard to react," said Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., who recently met with Rubio. "I think some of the things he was saying made some sense but the devil's always in the details."
Rubio got involved in mid March, saying he was gripped by the case of a Miami high school valedictorian who faced deportation. A pair of Republican senators, Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas and Jon Kyl of Arizona, were already working on something similar.
But it was Rubio who got the attention, a reflection of the news media's appetite for the hotshot rookie senator and potential Mitt Romney running mate, and national GOP eagerness to see him out front on an issue central to Hispanics.
"I think he's so credible to know the things that need to be done and addressed," Hutchison said.
As the months have gone by, however, the missing details have stood out more prominently.
"It does beg the question of what is his plan?" said Don Lyster, Washington director of the National Immigration Law Center. His group is pressing the White House to sidestep Congress, contending it has authority to grant the legal status Rubio's bill seeks.
Gaby Pacheco, a Dream Act advocate from Miami who has been working with Rubio on the proposal, said, "While we are anxious as other folks to see the legislation, they are really crafting this. But there is some concern about timing and there's not a lot of time left."
Rubio acknowledged the hurdles.
"A lot of people, while they are sympathetic with these kids and their plight, want to make sure we don't do anything that would encourage or reward illegal immigration in the future," he said.
"I think what we're doing, unfortunately, is we're competing with a lot of other major issues that this country faces. It's possible we just don't get to it because these other issues come first."
Alex Leary can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @learyreports