While you were lounging on the beach over the Fourth of July, Marco Rubio was having a really stressful holiday. And it wasn't just because he was recently booed by a crowd of Tea Partiers for his role in the Gang of Eight’s immigration bill, and called a “piece of garbage” by Glenn Beck, which can really hurt a person’s feelings. His feet are in the fire on another issue, too: abortion.
On July 2, The Weekly Standard reported that Rubio had “agreed to be the lead sponsor of a Senate bill to ban abortion” at 20 weeks—an almost identical piece of legislation to the one that passed the House last month. A Rubio adviser quickly clarified to The Washington Post that pro-life groups were courting Florida’s junior senator, but he was on vacation with his family and would announce a decision after the recess. But that didn’t stop every outlet from Fox News to Ms. Magazine from running articles that presented Rubio’s lead sponsorship as a done deal. As the days have ticked by with no comment from Rubio’s office, observers have started to get antsy. Earlier today, the Daily Kos speculated that Rubio is “apparently choking” on sponsoring the ban; Politico more judiciously said the senator will “face loads of questions on his plans regarding the legislation” when he gets back to the Capitol today. At this point, he’ll need an airtight reason if he decides to say no.
There’s a clear reason this is nerve-wracking: mansplaining on reproductive rights has burned a bevy of GOP contenders in the past year, and Rubio, his eyes on 2016, doesn't want to join them. From the electoral disgrace that met Todd Akin and the rest of the “rape caucus” last fall, to the furor over House bill sponsor Trent Franks’ comment that “the instance of rape resulting in pregnancy is very low,” abortion is starting to look like kryptonite for male pols. Who could blame Marco if his mouth is getting dry just thinking about it?
Anti-abortion groups like the Susan B. Anthony List and fellow Republicans have suggested Rubio’s too nimble a speaker to trip up like the others. Franks called him “an ideal person to carry this bill” and an “extremely articulate pro-life figure.” And it’s true the Florida senator has done a better job than most of keeping his abortion comments diplomatic. “In order to work together with people you disagree with, there has to be mutual respect,” he said at CPAC this March. “That means I respect people that disagree with me on certain things, but they have to respect me, too… Just because we believe that life, all life, all human life is worthy of protection of every stage in its development does not make you a chauvinist.” But he may only have managed this by steering clear of the abortion debate’s shark-infested waters: The only bill he has pushed on the topic since joining the U.S. Congress in 2011 outlaws minors from crossing state lines to circumvent parental notification laws, a tame provision compared to the one he may take up this week.
It’s painfully obvious why Rubio might want to spend a few months as the anti-abortion movement’s most visible cheerleader. After supporting a path to citizenship in the immigration bill, the Tea Party golden boy has become, in the words of Sarah Palin and the eyes of many former fans, the contemporary embodiment of Judas Iscariot. By attaching his name to the abortion issue, Rubio can endear himself to miffed conservatives and patch up any vulnerabilities on his right flank. And, he can do it at relatively low risk: Aides to Majority Leader Harry Reid have said he won’t allow the bill to reach the floor, and President Barack Obama has promised to veto the bill if it somehow passes, meaning the whole episode will be ancient history by 2016. As Democratic strategist Maria Cardona told MSNBC, “Any blowback will be early blowback. He will be able to look back in 2016 and say ‘look what I did in 2013’ and he won't necessarily have to talk a lot about the issue.”
But there are nearly as many reasons to think abortion isn’t firm ground for a comeback stand. Twenty-week bans of the kind Rubio would be pushing are on dubious scientific and constitutional footing at best: They’re predicated on the claim that 20-week-old fetuses feel pain, which the American Medical Association rejects; and they have been struck down or delayed by federal courts in Arizona, and Idaho, and Georgia. Even if Rubio is thinking more about his image than the bill’s merits, it might still concern him that he risks alienating the moderates he will need if we wants to prevail in 2016—and whom he went out on a limb to court during the immigration debate. (Among independents, 55 percent said in a recent Pew poll that abortion should be legal in all or most cases, and even among Republicans, only 58 percent think it should always or almost always be illegal.) Raul Reyes, a commentator at NBC Latino, wrote that Rubio could even alienate the Hispanic vote his party has been desperately wooing, since “74 percent of Latino voters said that women should have the right to make their own private decisions about abortion without political interference” and “68 percent of Latino voters were willing to disagree with church leaders on this issue.”
Rubio, it seems, just can't win. He can't afford to piss off conservatives any more than he already has by passing on this bill after days of speculation—but with his aspirations, nor can he afford to uphold his party's tradition of pissing off everybody else. Maybe he could have nipped the Weekly Standard rumor in the bud last Tuesday, but after a weekend of mulling it over, it's far too late now. Whether he says aye or nay, the heat will just turn up from here.
Nora Caplan-Bricker is an assistant editor at The New Republic. Follow her on Twitter @ncaplanbricker.