Gwen’s Take | Rubio, Giffords & Hagel: The Week in Confrontation

BY Gwen Ifill  February 1, 2013 at 8:30 AM EDT

Government can be dry. Politics can be tiring. The law, while necessary, can be tedious.

This is why high drama in Washington can be so much fun.

We saw three instances of it this week. And unlike our periodic fascination with invisible girlfriends and doping scandals, Beyonce and Volkswagen ads, these may actually matter.

This week’s confrontations pitted freshman Senator Marco Rubio against conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh, gunshot victim Gabrielle Giffords against the entire United States Senate and pugnacious Arizona Senator John McCain against Defense Secretary nominee Chuck Hagel.

Florida Republican Rubio, the son of Cubans who immigrated legally, has become the face of the newly bipartisan immigration reform effort. He is not in full agreement with President Obama, but he has long argued — even before the last election — that the nation has no choice but to fix its broken system.

Rubio, who has been embraced by the party’s most conservative wing, used that leverage this week to make his argument for immigration reform – tightened border security, improved visa tracking and a path to citizenship for young people brought into the country illegally through no action of their own.

He took his arguments to the guys with the megaphones — talk show hosts who have generally treated immigration relief as unacceptable amnesty for lawbreakers.

Limbaugh told Rubio he didn’t trust Democrats to tighten border security, believed newly-arriving immigrants are coming to the U.S. only for government benefits, and that President Obama cannot be trusted on the issue.

“I don’t see where there’s any commonality in what the president wants and what you want,” Limbaugh told Rubio.

Rubio replied that he didn’t know what the president might ultimately do, but he had Senate Democrats on his side. “The reality of it is we have put something that is very common sense and reasonable,” [he told Limbaugh](http://www.rushlimbaugh.com/daily/2013/01/29/senator_rubio_makes_his_case
). “If you take our principles, 70 percent of the American people would agree, if not more, with the general principles that we have outlined.”

By the end of the conversation, Limbaugh had not necessarily changed his mind, but he was calling Rubio’s effort “admirable and noteworthy.”

A second showdown occurred on Capitol Hill, when former Congresswoman Giffords launched a Senate Judiciary committee hearing on gun violence by delivering a dramatic, 72-word plea for lawmakers.

“We must do something,” she said, reading the words carefully and emphatically as her husband Mark Kelly leaned in for support. “It will be hard, but the time is now. You must act. Be bold, be courageous. Americans are counting on you.”

Seated at the same table was Wayne LaPierre of the National Rifle Association. He stuck to his guns (sorry, couldn’t resist) throughout the hearing, arguing that if government would just enforce existing laws, no one’s right to own weapons would be taken away.

The third confrontation also occurred in a Senate hearing room, as former Senator Chuck Hagel faced down old friend and fellow Vietnam veteran John McCain over his nomination to be Secretary of Defense.

Hagel is a Nebraska Republican, which must have made him seem appealing for confirmation purposes. But Republican after Republican attacked him for things he has said about the surge in Iraq, his support for Israel and his seriousness about Iran.

McCain, who was ultimately vindicated in his support for sending a surge of U.S. forces into Iraq, was clearly still seething about Hagel’s apostasy. And despite repeated, tense questioning on that point, Hagel would not admit he was wrong. (Want to know when their friendship went off the rails? Read this Chris Cillizza piece)

All three flashpoints were revealing. The future of immigration reform could well rely on Rubio’s ability to herd conservatives and liberals to a narrow slice of common ground.

The emotion that Giffords stirs whenever she appears in public may (or may not) move Congress off the dime on gun legislation and determine whether Senator Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., can finally get the expired assault weapon ban she championed reinstated.

And it was impossible not to compare the warmth with which Republicans greeted Senator John Kerry this week or Hillary Clinton four years ago, to the iciness that greeted Hagel.

Turns out being a member of the world’s most exclusive club is not a guarantee of smooth sailing — for Rubio, for Feinstein or for Hagel. Three Senators. Three dilemmas.