John McCain and Marco Rubio weren't going to follow President Barack Obama's lead.
When the White House announced that Obama would open a campaign for immigration reform with an event in Las Vegas Tuesday, the Republican senators and their bipartisan working group decided to rush out their plan ahead of him on Monday, according to sources familiar with the effort.
This game of leap frog was a preview of the personal politics that undergird the push this year to overhaul the immigration system.
Whether he likes it or not, the president's top legislative priority rests in the hands of McCain, his former 2008 rival, and Rubio, one of the GOP's leading candidates to take back the White House in 2016. That means the odds of passing a bill depend on whether the key players can not only resolve major policy differences but navigate the tricky dynamics among them.
The long-term stakes are enormous. For Obama, it's about cementing his party's lock on the Hispanic vote and finally making good on an unfilled campaign promise from his first run. For McCain and Rubio, it's about redeeming their party with one of the country's fastest-growing voting blocs whose alienation threatens to freeze Republicans out of the White House for years to come.
Both parties want Latino voters to give them the credit for solving the problem -- or at the very least, absolve them of the blame if nothing comes to pass. At the same time, Obama, McCain and Rubio each face a crucial calculation of their own -- how much jockeying they're going to do and how much credit they'll be willing to share across their personal and political divides to get the deal they all say they want done.
There was a lot of talk Monday of bipartisan momentum, as McCain and Rubio joined Democratic Sens. Chuck Schumer, Dick Durbin and Robert Menendez in announcing a set of principles on reforming immigration, and the White House welcomed it as a helpful development.
But in reality, each side -- Republicans and Democrats, Obama and Congress -- is watching the other warily, judging motives and pre-empting moves in hopes of gaining the upper hand. The Senate group jumped ahead of the president, one Senate Republican aide involved in the process said, because their proposal would've been "lost in the noise."
"If you wait, it is like an afterthought," the aide said, describing it as a group decision.
At the center are two people whom the White House really doesn't trust, but whose absence would raise serious questions about the viability of immigration reform.
McCain is the lead Republican negotiator and old guard warrior, returning to the fold after years of keeping his distance from immigration advocates in an attempt to seal his legacy. He's been a constant source of irritation to the administration, most recently for his role in derailing U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice's bid to become secretary of state -- which the president took personally.
Rubio is the fresh-faced ambassador to conservatives whose involvement will signal whether the bill stands any shot of winning broad Republican support. Obama, in one stroke last summer, undercut a legislative effort by Rubio to halt the deportations of younger undocumented immigrants by announcing that the administration would act unilaterally on it.
Then there is the president, who will constantly need to reassess the amount of deference and latitude he wants to afford the bipartisan Senate group. His aides strained Monday to portray the group as following Obama's lead. He will step forward Tuesday with more details on what he wants in an overhaul bill, attempting to wrest back the spotlight from the Senate.
"It is not as if these guys have a blank slate with their relationship, obviously," said Angela Kelley, vice president for immigration policy and advocacy at the Center for American Progress, which maintains close ties with the White House. "But this is an issue where they can set aside their differences and work toward a solution. There is a demographic reality behind this issue that isn't true with any nomination to a Cabinet post. They have 20/20 vision when it comes to the demographic change."
McCain didn't gloss over that fact Monday, saying flatly that his party's drubbing by Hispanic voters in the 2012 election is the reason why success may be possible.
"The Republican Party is losing support of our Hispanic citizens," he said. "We realize while there are issues where we are in agreement with our Hispanic citizens, this is a pre-eminent issue for them."
Democrats describe in relieved tones the return of what they call the "old John McCain" or the "good John McCain" -- the senator who in 2006, and to a lesser extent in 2007, sought to forge a compromise with the late Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.). McCain angered immigration reform supporters by his sudden shift to a border-first strategy during his 2008 presidential campaign, and McCain felt equally wounded by the critical comments of advocates he considered allies and the thin support he received from Hispanic voters as he ran.
Schumer, one of the Senate's shrewdest political strategists, is sold on McCain's commitment, showering him with such praise at their press conference Monday that the Republican's face turned ruby red.
"I want to say he's been the glue in our group," Schumer said. "His wisdom, his strength, his courage, his steadfastness and many other adjectives that I'll skip at the moment have really been inspiring to me and I think to all of us."
McCain, for his part, challenged the conventional wisdom the president's involvement will alienate conservatives -- comments that administration officials highlighted during a background briefing Monday night with reporters.
"If the president follows up and expresses support for the same principles, obviously then it helps when the president of the United States is supportive," McCain said. "It helped when George W. Bush was supportive, so it's no different than in 2007."
Even Rubio, who repeatedly criticized Obama during a conservative media blitz this month, softened up a bit when conservative radio show host Michael Medved, in an interview Monday asked whether he expected the White House to undermine him.
"You know I don't know," Rubio said. "My hope obviously is that they'll allow this process to move forward and to the extent possible try to unify Americans versus continuing to use this issue as a political wedge, but I heard somewhere today their comments were generally positive, so that's good. I know that the president is going to be speaking about this tomorrow. We'll reserve judgement. I don't have a lot of hopes but enough that I take people at their word, and if they say they want to be supportive of this I welcome that."
Rubio pre-empted the president with an op-ed published Sunday in the Las Vegas Journal Review, welcoming Obama's "voice and influence" but questioning whether he's as serious as Congress about solving the problem.
"Sen. Rubio has his own immigration reform principles which can be a standard bearer for conservatives so we wanted to message into that market," Rubio spokesman Alex Conant.
But Rubio has yet to hear from the president or his aides on the issue, he said.
"It's just odd they would be rolling out immigration principles in Nevada on Tuesday without ever asking Sen. Rubio for any input," Conant said. "The working assumption is that the president is not going to play a role in this. They haven't shown any interest in working with us so far."
Overall, the White House is optimistic -- but cautious.
Administration officials said they were surprised by the quickened timeline of the Senate group but emphasized that what they produced are a set of principles that leave many difficult questions unresolved.
Obama is prepared to give them time to reach an agreement on legislative language, and he won't release his own bill as long as they are making progress, the officials said.
But the president will go around them and appeal directly to voters in an election-style campaign -- a process that starts Tuesday in Las Vegas whether Republicans like it or not, which they don't.
"It's not particularly helpful, the president starting up the campaign bus at a time when we're trying to get a bipartisan agreement," said the Senate Republican aide involved in the bipartisan talks.
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