A potential rival to Gang of Eight member and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio in the race for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul said Tuesday that he would oppose the comprehensive immigration reform law meticulously crafted by Rubio and seven other senators.
Paul has emerged as one of the most vexing figures in this spring’s battle to reform the nation’s immigration laws, backtracking from the law that would allow a pathway to citizenship for as many as 12 million undocumented workers currently residing in the U.S. Paul’s pronouncement comes as Rubio’s political future becomes increasingly tied into the fate of the Gang of Eight law, which is largely detested by conservatives.
After having won headlines earlier this year for seemingly endorsing a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants -- the central thrust of the comprehensive immigration reform proposal crafted by the bipartisan "Gang of Eights" -- Paul said he would oppose the deal for, in his view, insufficiently securing the border between the United States and Mexico.
"The American people desperately need immigration reform," the first-term senator wrote in Politico. "Unfortunately, this legislation does not do the job."
A potential presidential candidate in 2016 who could potentially challenge Rubio for the Republican nomination, Paul had emerged early in the immigration debate as a potential supporter of immigration reform, one who would add significant Tea Party cachet to the legislation. Paul won significant coverage of his March 19 speech on the topic, where he outlined his own immigration plan that would provide an eventual pathway to citizenship for many undocumented workers.
But in the weeks since then, Paul has steadily backed away from the Gang of Eight proposal. He established himself both as a figure friendly to immigration reform (and the Hispanic community that has punished the GOP in recent cycles for its hostile rhetoric on the issue of immigration) and, eventually, as one of the Gang of Eight proposal, which has engendered significant resistance from conservatives, who play an outsized role in the presidential nominating contests.
Paul has been consistent in one regard: his demand that Congress adopt what he calls a "trust but verify" system in which lawmakers vote annually on certifying U.S. border security before immigration reform is allowed to move forward. The Kentucky Republican told reporters following his immigration speech that he would try to attach such an amendment, which would be a key factor in determining his vote on the underlying Gang of Eight proposal.
Paul further tried to position himself as a key figure in the immigration debate by calling himself a "bridge" between the bipartisan Senate bill, and House Republicans who regard the Senate proposal and its border security measures with a high degree of skepticism.
Paul's Senate colleagues eventually rejected his amendment in a 37-61 vote last week.
The amendment authored by Republican Sens. Bob Corker, Tenn., and John Hoeven, N.D., and adopted on Monday was instead meant to assuage many conservatives' concerns by doubling the size of the border patrol and spending billions on building a fence along the border with Mexico. Paul voted against that, too, calling it a "weaker substitute" for his own plan, and one that spends too much.
“I mean this is not only sufficient, it is well over-sufficient,” Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., another Gang of Eight member, said of the effects of the Hoeven-Corker provision. “We'll be the most militarized border since the fall of the Berlin Wall. That's why I think this amendment was very important.”
Whether Paul's strategy toward immigration will pay dividends come 2016 is an open question. In Iowa, the host of the first 2016 nominating contest, and where two members of the state's congressional delegation -- Sen. Charles Grassley and Rep. Steve King -- have emerged as vociferous critics of immigration reform, voters slightly favor immigration reform.
By a 16-point margin, Iowans said in a Des Moines Register poll released last week that a pathway to citizenship for undocumented workers was a "worthy goal." Republicans, however, slightly opposed such a goal, with 48 percent saying citizenship was an unworthy goal, versus 44 percent of Republicans who said it was.
The sweet spot for Republicans? Border security. Seventy percent of Republicans said in the Des Moines Register poll that the border "could be a lot more secure," and another 15 percent said the border could be a little more secure.