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Rubio's exit strategy takes shape

Associated Press

The politics surrounding Sen. Marco Rubio's (R-Fla.) immigration pitch to Rush Limbaugh seemed straightforward enough, at least as of 24 hours ago. The far-right senator is part of a bipartisan group of lawmakers that supports comprehensive reform, while the far-right radio host is ready to use his power to "stop this" from advancing. Rubio presumably wanted to offer a persuasive defense of his own bill.

But during today's on-air interview, both Republicans staked out interesting positions that were not altogether expected. Limbaugh, for example, wanted to kill the bipartisan reform plan yesterday, but today lauded Rubio's efforts as "admirable and noteworthy," and "recognizing reality." And while Rubio was all smiles yesterday, today the GOP lawmaker seemed to be hinting at an exit strategy from the reform initiative he's helped launch.

In an interview with Rush Limbaugh aired Tuesday, Sen. Marco Rubio said he wouldn't support a bill granting a pathway to citizenship to undocumented immigrants unless it first addressed border security. [...]

"To the point of them not wanting to do the security, look, all I can tell you is that that's a big issue for me," Rubio responded. "That's why I'm involved in this process. I have no reason to believe it won't happen. But if it doesn't, I'll come back to you and say look, it didn't happen. We tried, they put that in the principles, but then they drafted a bill and I couldn't support it."

So, literally one day after Rubio threw his support to a bipartisan, comprehensive reform package, he told a right-wing radio show he's prepared to walk away unless he gets what he wants. That doesn't exactly speak highly of Rubio's commitment to following through on a policy he claims to take seriously.

For that matter, whether Rubio understands this or not, President Obama has already delivered the "border security" measures the senator says he's looking for. If, however, Rubio means giving folks like Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (R) veto power over federal reform efforts, that's not going to happen, and Rubio might as well take his ball and go home now.

Specifically, what the senator claims to want is some sort of "trigger."

In particular, he said including enforcement measures as a "trigger" for undocumented immigrants to seek permanent residency was key.

"Unless there's real enforcement triggers we are not going to have a bill that moves on the opportunity to apply for a green card," Rubio said. He added: "I'm not going to be part of a bidding war to see who can put the most lenient path forward" if Obama demands a smoother path to citizenship.

I don't know what those "triggers" would look like, exactly, and I'm not sure Rubio knows, either.

But as the legislative phase begins in earnest, it's a wrinkle worth watching. Indeed, it's easy to imagine Rubio playing a longer game: he'll get credit from the American mainstream for working on a bipartisan compromise, then he'll get credit from the right for abandoning his own plan, blaming Obama and Democrats for not taking border security seriously enough.

I hope that's not what the senator has in mind, but the disparate postures between yesterday and today raise questions about his intentions.