In this June 19, 2013, photo, Tea Party activists attend a rally on the grounds of the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, June 19, 2013. Six months after Hispanics overwhelmingly helped return President Barack Obama to office and control of the Senate to Democrats, House Speaker John Boehner is the face of the GOP effort to bite into that base of support _ or at least stop alienating a demographic that accounts for 17 percent of the nation. That means getting a new policy on immigration, perhaps the most delicate political dance of Boehnerâs career. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
He burst onto the national stage as the “Tea Party Darling” du jour.
It was nothing short of a stellar national entrance for Marco Rubio, the Republican senator from Florida.
But now, Tea Party members are among the Florida lawmaker’s most passionate, most resentful critics. Many have completely turned on Rubio, feeling betrayed by his push for immigration reform.
At a protest in Washington D.C. on Wednesday, conservatives at the rally booed when the junior Senator’s name was mentioned.
Many conservatives are angry at Rubio because of his central role in an immigration reform measure that would provide a pathway to legal status for many of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States.
The measure addresses many other aspects of immigration, but it is that part of the bill that has made Rubio a turncoat in the eyes of many conservatives and Tea Party members.
Others, including some more moderate Republican leaders, see Rubio – seen as a possible presidential candidate in 2016 -- as their hope for improving relations with Latino voters, who last year voted overwhelmingly for President Barack Obama, shunning GOP candidate Mitt Romney.
One reason, many experts said and polls corroborated, was the hard line that Romney, and other Republicans who ran in the primary, took regarding immigration.
"He has gotten used by the establishment Republicans because he is Hispanic to go out and do their dirty work, and I likely cannot support him if he ran for president now," said Ronald King, a 44-year-old North Carolina voter, according to an article in newsweekly magazine, U.S. News & World Report.
Protesters advanced on a news conference held by Republicans to discuss immigration reform, and poked signs that read "Do Not Reward Criminals" and "No Amnesty!" over the heads of Republicans who had just finished speaking about finding a civilized tone in the year's most difficult debate.
U.S. News & World Report quoted another protester, Edward Wisniewski, as saying: "You don't try to deal with Chuck Schumer. Rubio's been caving and it is because he has been dealing with slewfoots like Schumer. He's hurting his reputation.”
Also on Wednesday, the anti-Rubio comments continued at a six-hour news conference that Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, an immigration hard-liner, held outside the Capitol to highlight opposition to the Senate bill.
People in the crowd held signs opposing "illegal aliens" and Rubio as "Obama's Idiot."
At the earlier conference by Republicans speaking in favor of the bill, Becky Keenan, a Hispanic pastor who had appeared with the GOP lawmakers, turned toward the anti-immigration-reform protesters and took a photo.
They began to yell at her. Keenan ignored them, quietly explaining why House Speaker John Boehner, a Republican who also drew bitter criticism from the protesters, is bothering to pursue agreement on the perennial headache that is immigration reform.
Along with Rubio, Boehner is helping lead the GOP effort to bite into the base of Hispanic support of Democrats — or at least stop alienating a demographic that accounts for 17 percent of the nation. That means getting a new policy on immigration, perhaps the most delicate political dance of Boehner's career.
Immigration separates Republicans from one another as much if not more than it separates them from Democrats. They don't trust Boehner to hew to the so-called "Hastert Rule," named after former GOP Speaker Dennis Hastert, though it was more a goal than a set rule. During the eight years he ran the House, he had a policy of allowing votes only on those bills that were supported by a majority of Republican members.
"If the Republican Party wants to regain the Hispanic vote, which they so miserably lost in the last election, they're going to have to let Latinos know they are wanted," Keenan, pastor of Gulf Meadows Church in Houston, said after the hubbub Wednesday had subsided. "They are going to have to deal with immigration reform."
Keenan, who had attended the Republican news conference just across a driveway from the King event, shook her head at the protesters but didn't engage them.
"A lot if it is fear-based," she said.
Rubio has stood firm in the storm of criticism, appearing almost daily on television and sending out a barrage of daily news releases to defend comprehensive immigration reform.
The measure, drafted by a bipartisan group that includes Rubio, three other Republicans and four Democrats, at its core tightens border security, offers legal status to certain undocumented immigrants, expands the guest worker visa program and seeks improvements to the legal immigration process.
Some people, Rubio has said, will not support immigration reform regardless of the details. At the same time, he has made a point of insisting on tough border security measures – an important factor for Republicans who oppose a pathway to legal status without stepping up enforcement – before agreeing to other aspects of the sweeping measure.
On Wednesday, lawmakers seemed to have reached the first major compromise on the Senate immigration bill currently being debated.
The tentative agreement would stiffen the bill's border security requirements without delaying legalization for millions living in the country unlawfully.
"This is a key moment in the effort to pass this bill. This is sort of the defining 24 to 36 hours," Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said Wednesday night after a day of private talks.
Under the emerging compromise, the government would grant legal status to immigrants living in the United States unlawfully at the same time the additional security was being put into place. Green cards, which signify permanent residency status, would be withheld until the security steps were complete.
Meanwhile, on Wednesday, in an interview on Washington, D.C.’s WMAL 105.9 FM “Mornings on the Mall” radio show, former Florida Republican Rep. Allen West said he was considering challenging Rubio in a 2016 GOP Senate primary.
“Do we need to do something about immigration? Absolutely,” West added, according to published reports. “This whole ‘comprehensive’ thing – I think the bill now is up to 1,075 pages. Once again, the American people don’t trust that.”
“That’s a pretty heavy lift, because you’re talking about running against a sitting senator, and then, of course, that creates that schism that the other side would love to see happen,” West, who has ruled out a 2014 run, told host Larry O’Connor.
West said he is disappointed in Rubio because of his support for the immigration reform bill.
A Quinnipiac University poll this week showed that Florida voters give Rubio negative marks for his handling of immigration and gun issues in Washington but still hold favorable views of the rising Republican star.
The poll found that 41 percent disapprove of Rubio's handling of the immigration overhaul in the Senate that would give an estimated 11 million immigrants in the U.S. illegally a path to citizenship. The random telephone survey of 1,176 registered voters taken June 11-16 shows 33 percent approve.
The poll found that 58 percent of Florida voters back a path to citizenship for those here illegally.
"As perhaps the best-known Hispanic-American in national politics, Sen. Marco Rubio has a tightrope to walk between keeping the folks back home happy and serving as a high-profile symbol for the GOP nationally," said Peter A. Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, according to the Miami Herald. Overall, a slim majority of Florida voters -- 51 percent -- approve of the job Rubio is doing as the state's junior senator.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.