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Marco Rubio crafts conservative argument for immigration reform. Will it sell?

GOP Sen. Marco Rubio is out front as the ‘gang of 8’ releases its immigration reform plan. The move puts him toe to toe with conservative talk-show hosts and could make or break a presidential run in 2016.

With the Senate’s “gang of 8” releasing the legislative text of their immigration reform compromise early Wednesday morning, Sen. Marco Rubio (R) of Florida is more on the spot than ever.

Even as Senator Rubio and his colleagues in the immigration gang debated exactly what would be in the bill, the charismatic freshman lawmaker of Cuban heritage went on a PR blitz, putting himself in the line of fire of conservative radio hosts who sneer at  “amnesty” as if it were a four-letter word and appearing on no fewer than seven political talk shows last Sunday.

Now, Rubio has an actual bill to defend – and initial comments from him and his office lay out how he plans to win over weary conservatives while keeping his 2016 presidential prospects bright. 

First, Rubio has craftily dispatched with the complaint that the Senate bill is tantamount to an “amnesty” for illegal immigrants.

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“No one gets amnesty,” says a fact sheet from Rubio’s office, issued alongside his comments on the bill. “Unless we continue to do nothing, this bill will eliminate today’s status quo, de facto amnesty.”

That “de facto amnesty” is a key part of Rubio’s critique and sits at the heart of his argument to conservative audiences: Today, the lack of border security and immigration enforcement effectively lets the government to look the other way on illegal immigration, while local governments bear the burden.

“The reality is that today’s de facto amnesty already costs taxpayers,” Rubio’s office argues. “Our local communities see this firsthand through their overburdened school and health systems, as well as taxes that are going unpaid because employers and workers choose to work under the table.”

Second, Rubio argues that the bill’s security provisions will give conservatives what they have long sought: secure borders largely impermeable to would-be migrants.

“The security triggers are not left at the discretion of politicians with agendas,” the Rubio fact sheet reads. “Real measurable results must be achieved, and politicians cannot override them.”

Later, Rubio makes an argument for immigration reform along law-and-order lines traditionally favored by conservatives: By allowing otherwise law-abiding people to come forward, the US can focus its immigration enforcement resources on criminals such as drug dealers and human traffickers.

Third, Rubio vows that Republican concerns about a massive bill getting jammed through Congress (as they believe Democrats did with President Obama’s health-care law) have been heard by the immigration reformers.

Rubio foresees that the immigration reform proposal will receive weeks of debate, hearings, and amendments in the Senate Judiciary Committee and a similar amount of time on the floor of the US Senate.

He also cites a few plums to conservative audiences. The bill, he argues, constitutes a “partial repeal of ObamaCare,” in that it would bar newly documented immigrants from accessing the coverage provided under the health-care law. Likewise, the legislation avoids the ire of social conservatives in that it does not recognize LGBT relationships as a basis for immigration decisions, as does the Uniting Families Act favored by Democrats in both chambers.

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Will that fly in the Senate? With heavy support from Democrats and a handful of Republicans on board, the measure looks as if it has the votes to survive a 60-vote threshold imposed by a filibuster.

However, Rubio’s opponents on the right and in the low-immigration movement are just now beginning to mobilize.

Criticism on the right of the immigration reform drive has been driven largely by one man, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R) of Alabama. Now that the bill is released, conservative opponents will be able to find the “death-panel-type stuff,” the parts that conservatives see as both odious policy and politically spinnable, says Mark Krikorian, director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates relatively low immigration levels.

As the bill makes its way through the committee and floor debate that Rubio has sworn to protect, “you’re going to see more senators piling on” to oppose the bill, Mr. Krikorian says.

Rubio will need to sway not only some of those senators, but also powerful outside groups such as Numbers USA, a low-immigration advocacy organization that views the bill as inflicting pain on American workers.

Roy Beck, Numbers USA’s chief, doesn’t think much of Rubio’s argument regarding today’s “de facto amnesty.”

While acknowledging the bill’s restrictions on government support programs for the newly legalized, Mr. Beck says that in the long run, these people will become citizens and will qualify for government support.

“The status quo is much, much cheaper than the real amnesty,” he adds.

Beck’s organization is already airing advertisements against Republican senators who back the measures, such as Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina. He says his private conversations with Republicans make him optimistic that proponents of the immigration bill won’t get the 60 votes needed to pass it.

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Regardless of whether it passes, Rubio’s support for the immigration reform package will come back to haunt him in any presidential run, Beck says. “If Rubio sticks with this bill, I don’t think primary voters will ever forgive him,” he says.

And don’t expect Democrats to come running to the defense of a potential 2016 presidential contender.

When the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza asked Democratic National Committee Chairman Debbie Wasserman Schultz on MSNBC on Monday whether Rubio deserves kudos from Democrats for his work on immigration reform, she dodged. 

“You know, the credit that is deserved is that we’re making progress. There are a gang of eight bipartisan senators who have gotten together. There’s also a similar group in the House of Representatives,” said Representative Wasserman Schultz, of Florida. “This is finally an issue that Republicans have decided – for, I think, probably political reasons more than anything else, but I’m glad they’re at the table – that it’s time that we make some progress and that we have to get past this issue.”