Rubio's Tea Party Ties Starting To Fray

Feb 1, 2013

U. S. Sen. Marco Rubio's leadership in the movement to reform American immigration policy has complicated his once-cozy relationship with the conservative organization formerly known as the Tea Party.

AMONG FRIENDS: Tea Party support catapulted candidate Marco Rubio to the U. S. Senate in 2010.
Credit Daron Dean/Tampa Bay Times

The leading proposal, which Rubio supports, calls for tougher border security but also a painstaking pathway to citizenship for the millions of illegal immigrants already in the country. Rubio has opposed the pathway in the past, usually agreeing with conservative critics who consider it "amnesty" that rewards the illegal act of sneaking into the U. S.

Now -- as he told a series of broadcast interviewers, including Rush Limbaugh, on Thursday -- leaving things as they are is "de facto amnesty" and, in his words, "no way to run a country of immigrants."

The Tampa Bay Times has been sampling Tea Party opinion by interviewing Tea Party leaders:

“A lot of members are saying it’s an amnesty bill. They’re not happy with him,” said Everett Wilkinson of South Florida, who heads the newly named Liberty Federation boasting more than 100,000 members.

Wilkinson said he’s been in contact with Rubio’s office and has asked for information to help explain Rubio’s thinking to tea party members.

“Most of them are upset. We feel there’s other issues he could be focused on,” Wilkinson said, citing the debt. “It could hurt him with the tea party but it’s too early to say. This whole thing could go off like an Acme rocket. You never know what direction it’s going to go. He may hop off it.”

But Henry Kelley of the Florida Tea Party Network said members he’s been in touch with are generally supportive of Rubio’s approach, which calls for tougher enforcement before a pathway to citizenship kicks in.

The political stakes for Rubio and his possible presidential aspirations are high. He was elected in 2010 with enthusiastic Tea Party support for a tough conservative platform that included a hard line approach to immigration enforcement. But the 2012 re-election of President Barack Obama put Rubio and other Republicans on notice that their political futures may rely on policy changes that attract Hispanic voters to the GOP.

Tea Partiers who see the same handwriting on the wall have encouraged Rubio to stick it out  with immigration reform. Others, some of them on Twitter, are calling for his head.

@SteveNewcomer wrote: “How quick the Tea Party candidates turn! RUBIO IS ANOTHER SELL-OUT!”

@BarryOCommunist wrote, “@marcorubio you’re dead to me. No this isn’t a threat but rather an observation. You’re a sell out just like the rest of #GOP.”

“Some raise valid points," Rubio told the Tampa Bay Times. "I respect their views."