Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) addresses the Conservative Political Action… (Alex Wong / Getty Images )
WASHINGTON — When Marco Rubio was the No. 3 Republican in the Florida House of Representatives, he worked with Democrats in 2003 to protect farmworkers from unscrupulous contractors and harmful pesticides.
"My heart goes out to the workers in this industry," the Miami native, then 31, told the Palm Beach Post. "Like a lot of my constituents, they come over to this country and try to get ahead and they should be treated fairly."
Democrats in the state House had recruited Rubio to help convince the GOP majority, especially a citrus grower who ran the agriculture committee, to support the legislation. And in 2004, Florida's GOP governor, Jeb Bush, signed some of the provisions into law.
Almost a decade later, Rubio, now a U.S. senator and a Republican presidential prospect, finds himself playing the same pivotal — but politically dicey — role in the national debate over immigration reform.
As a tea party favorite and the only Republican Latino among the eight senators drafting a reform bill, the Cuban American's support is seen as crucial to win over conservatives in Congress and, more broadly, across the nation. But if Rubio backs a bill that draws scorn from the tea party, his potential presidential candidacy could be jeopardized.
That is why attention has been drawn to signs that Rubio appears to want to slow the group's timetable.
After a key member of the group, Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), insisted a bipartisan deal was almost done, Rubio undercut that message. "This process cannot be rushed or done in secret," he insisted in a statement issued March 31 that was timed for release before Schumer hit the Sunday talk-show circuit.
Days later, Rubio raised a red flag over the potential costs of immigration reform.
And on Friday, Rubio insisted that the bill would be "a starting point, not a take-it-or-leave-it proposition." In a letter to four GOP senators who criticized the secrecy and speed of the negotiations, Rubio promised to brief fellow Republicans on the bill at their weekly lunch Tuesday. "Like all legislation of this magnitude, it should be reviewed and scrutinized thoroughly by numerous interested parties well before the first vote is taken," he wrote.
Rubio declined requests for an interview to discuss his role in the immigration debate.
As the White House and outside groups pressure Democrats to move more quickly toward a deal, Rubio's cautious approach could be meant to reassure voters in the GOP's base that he is their voice in the closed-door negotiations. It also could serve to lay out an exit strategy if the stakes became too high.
But the chances that the Florida senator would walk away from the legislation, which the four Democrats and four Republicans hope to roll out soon, are low, according to those who have followed the negotiations and political observers who have tracked Rubio's rise.
"Being president is about leadership," said Javier Ortiz, a Republican strategist who has watched Rubio since 1999, when he began his race for the Florida House. "Sen. Rubio is showing he is not afraid of leadership. Today it may be immigration; it may be something else in the future. I don't think it will be detrimental to him."
On Sunday, Sen. Lindsey Graham, another key Republican negotiator, described Rubio's role as indispensable and "a game-changer in my party." The South Carolinian predicted on NBC's "Meet the Press" that if the kinks can be worked out on a guest-worker program, merit-based immigration, border security and employer background checks, "Marco will be there."
Being the lone Latino Republican who helped solve the immigration puzzle could prove to be valuable currency for the 41-year-old senator as he looks toward a possible presidential run. Besides crafting a policy victory on a key issue, he would be helping the GOP build an image more appealing to Latino voters who have abandoned the party as anti-immigrant.
With 2016 in mind, Rubio must be mindful of conservatives, who play an oversize role in choosing the party's presidential nominee. Rubio won his Senate seat in Florida on the 2010 tea party wave. (If he decides to seek reelection rather than the White House in 2016, he still would have to protect against a conservative challenge driven by foes of immigration reform.)
Rubio, however, appears to want to seize the mantle as deal maker in a room of heavyweights that includes former presidential contender Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). The Florida senator is calculating that if he is going to suffer the potential blowback from participating in such a difficult issue, he should also reap the benefits that come with being the leader who brokered the deal.
"Rubio's been a pretty active, vocal part of this group," said one source familiar with the group's negotiations, who characterized the senator's participation as "thoughtful."