Florida Sen. Marco Rubio spent about 15 minutes with conservative radio host
Lars Larson on Thursday defending a sweeping immigration bill he and seven of
his colleagues unveiled just hours before.
When Rubio was done, Larson's first three callers complained that the bill would reward people who broke the law to be here, and they didn't believe the border would be secured as the senators promise.
The interview illustrated that Rubio, a Republican and Tea Party favorite, will have difficulty convincing conservatives who have helped kill past attempts at immigration overhauls that the time is right.
The bipartisan group of senators called the Gang of Eight unveiled a bill Thursday that would represent the biggest change to the nation's immigration laws in 27 years. It would give the nation's 11 million unauthorized immigrants a chance to become citizens, add $6.5 billion to secure the nation's border with Mexico and fundamentally alter the nation's legal immigration system.
Rubio has become the chief salesman of the bill, but it is his work with conservatives and Republicans that may make the difference between success and failure.
At each of his interviews with conservative radio hosts Thursday he was questioned about repeating the failures of the 1986 bill that gave amnesty to the nation's estimated 3 million unauthorized immigrants.
Back then, the bill called for a securing of the border, but an estimated 11 million more people have since entered or remained in the country illegally.
"Obviously, there are people who have very strong feelings and quite frankly, will never be supportive of the reform we're working on, or any reform for that matter," Rubio said. "But ultimately, I think they deserve to hear what we're working on, why we're working on it and hopefully at least some of them will consider why we're doing this."
Despite the skepticism, there are signs Rubio will at least get a hearing. Larson said Rubio was the ideal choice to pitch the bill.
"He's smart, he's young, he's telegenic, he's well thought of, he's an odds-on candidate to run for president, he's Latino," said Larson, a nationally syndicated host.
Inga Barks, a host for KMJ radio in central California, agreed, saying he was the best member of the Gang of Eight to make the case.
"Getting mad at John McCain is easy -- he's crotchety and grumpy," Banks said. "Marco Rubio? That's like kicking the Easter Bunny."
Both said Rubio would struggle to win over their listeners. "I don't think it's going to sell," Banks said.
Rubio also appeared on Rush Limbaugh's radio show. Limbaugh grilled Rubio on why he would be embracing a bill that "Democrats are salivating over" and could spell "suicide" for the Republican Party. But his listeners also heard high praise.
"I happen to like Sen. Rubio," Limbaugh said after Rubio finished. "He's a force of nature, he's a force of energy, and he is a genuine conservative and full-throatedly and full-heartedly ...believes in it. The bill itself -- I'm never going to understand it."
While selling the bill to Americans will be important, Rubio and the Gang of Eight will also have to convince conservative members of Congress standing in the way.
Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, the former chairman of the Judiciary Committee, wouldn't even discuss the bill's chances in the House because he doubted it could pass the Senate.
He said many members will struggle with the idea of forgiving unauthorized immigrants and will need more security along the border.
"I can assure you that we will be focusing on real border security," Smith said.
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