In the end, immigration reform really was a done deal in the Senate. Debates come down to numbers on Capitol Hill, and the Gang of Eight reform team had the numbers. Needing 60 votes to overcome a filibuster, they started with the Senate's 54 Democrats and then added the four Republican Gang members. With 58 votes in the bag, it wasn't hard to get to 60. So most of the 14 Republicans who ultimately voted for the bill were extras, not needed for passage but helpful to allow the reformers to claim a broad mandate.
From the beginning, many Senate Republicans were terrified of immigration reform. They knew a large part of their base opposed any measure that smelled of "amnesty." But they were also deeply shaken by last November's election results, in which Mitt Romney won just 27 percent of the Hispanic vote. Some GOP strategists, and some Senate colleagues, told them the Republican Party would be finished unless it supported reform.
What to do? First, they tried not to stick their necks out. For several months, if you asked a Republican senator a substantive question about immigration, the answer was, "Let's see what Marco comes up with."
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio has been more than the GOP point man on immigration. From January, when the Gang of Eight announced its intentions, until April, when it unveiled its bill, Rubio was the man Republicans hid behind. "We're waiting for Marco" became the Senate Republican caucus's unofficial position on immigration.
After the Gang unveiled its bill, one might have expected GOP lawmakers to take a stand. Instead, many still deferred to Rubio, saying they were waiting to see what kind of improvements he might deliver.
Republicans were able to keep their heads down in part because there wasn't a lot of pressure coming from the anti-reform conservative base. And that owed a great deal to the Gang's decision to dispatch Rubio, elected as a Tea Party favorite in 2010 and viewed as a future leader of the Republican Party, on a mission to allay conservative suspicions about the bill.
"Menendez told me that Rubio's role was to 'work over the conservative universe, particularly the conservative opinion-maker universe,' in order to 'neutralize them' and, in some cases, 'proselytize them,'" The New Yorker's Ryan Lizza reported recently, referring to Democratic Gang member Robert Menendez. The leader of the Gang, Democrat Charles Schumer, "was delighted to have a Tea Party conservative who could sell an immigration bill to the right," Lizza wrote.