WASHINGTON — The U.S. Senate on Thursday approved the most sweeping changes to immigration law in nearly three decades, offering up to 11 million illegal immigrants a path to citizenship while spending tens of billions on a massive security buildup along the southern border with Mexico.
The momentous vote, emphasized by a 68-32 majority that included 14 Republicans, is a sign of how far immigration reform has come since the last attempt collapsed in 2007. But the triumph appears fleeting. The GOP-controlled House has signaled strong opposition to the bill.
The scrambled dynamic held for the man in the spotlight, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who helped write the bill, helped bring along fellow Republicans but has also become maligned by conservatives who saw him as the next president.
Increasingly, on TV, conservative talk radio and social media, Rubio has been cast as a sellout, liar and flip-flopper. This was the 2010 candidate who in a debate declared that "earned path to citizenship is basically code for amnesty." The bill passed Thursday has an earned path, requiring immigrants to pay taxes, fines and wait at least a decade before getting permanent residency. Conservative commentator Erick Erickson wrote this week that Rubio had moved a step closer to a Charlie Crist-like hug of President Barack Obama.
"He's really hurt himself with the tea party," said Ron Kirby, 68, of Alexandria, Va., who stood outside the Capitol in protest of the immigration bill Thursday.
After the vote, the bipartisan group of senators who crafted the bill declared victory and said the vote would pressure the House to take action. But Rubio was a no-show.
While the damage is measurable — a Washington Post/ABC News poll this week showed Rubio's favorability rating among Republicans has slid 11 points since August 2012 — it's too soon to know if it is enduring.
Rubio's involvement in a complex issue has brought him praise, from even some of the Republicans who voted against the bill, and added heft to a resume that heretofore has featured rhetorical grace over legislative accomplishment.
"I don't have any idea how long any of the negative repercussions might last," said Dana Perino, a Republican consultant and Fox News commentator. "What I've admired is that he consistently has stayed on the merits, calm and collected, regardless of some of the vile things people have said about him. We can't expect our elected leaders to always vote the way we personally would."
In a speech on the Senate floor Wednesday, Rubio addressed the fallout among conservatives, calling it a "real trial for me." But unlike his dithering in past weeks — moves that annoyed Gang of 8 colleagues — he made a forceful case for why he felt the bill was necessary, emphasizing even more border security that was added to the bill with Rubio's help.
"In my heart and in my mind, I know that we must solve this problem once and for all, or it will only get worse. It will only get harder to solve," Rubio said. He followed it with a five-page open letter to conservatives that began, "Dear friends."
On Thursday, Rubio went for an emotional strike, telling the story of his Cuban-born parents' early struggles to make it in America, the paper his father carried around that read "I am looking for work."
They were some of the first English words his father learned, Rubio said, providing new detail in a family story that has been the heart of speeches from his time in the Florida House to his rise as a national figure.
"Sometimes, we focus so much on how immigrants could change America, that we forget that America changes immigrants even more," said Rubio, 42.
Not long after, senators entered the chamber and sat at their desks for the vote, presided over by Vice President Joe Biden. Rubio rose, buttoned his jacket and added his "aye." The no votes from other potential 2016 presidential candidates, Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Ted Cruz of Texas, did not go unnoticed.
The pitfalls were clear to Rubio and his political advisers when he decided to jump into the debate and join the Gang of 8. He had a strategy: Flood the conservative airwaves and news columns to talk about the bill, disarming critics with his accessibility and personality. It wasn't a clear success but the tone has been markedly less heated than 2007, a shift that also owes to the GOP establishment's desire to improve its standing with a growing Hispanic electorate.
Rubio's record otherwise is decidedly conservative, opposing budget deals and calling for the repeal of the health care law. "He's with us on most issues," Kirby said. "Of course we don't know how this immigration thing will turn out. If it's killed, a lot of people will forget and move on. That's the way he comes back."
The same Washington Post poll that showed Rubio's standing among Republicans had fallen showed gains among Democrats. The bipartisan stripes he has earned could be a calling card in a future campaign. Rubio says he won't decide whether to run for president until next year.
He and his political team seem to have calculated he can outlast any short-term political fallout.
"He's proven he's not an ideologue," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a Gang of 8 member. "He's using his political capital for the common good. . . . This will only enhance him."
Alex Leary can be reached at [email protected]