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Rubio warns Obama could act to legalize immigrants if Congress fails to pass reform

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FILE: Undated: Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. (AP)

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio is warning that if Congress doesn't pass immigration reform, President Obama may act on his own to legalize the 11 million immigrants already in the country illegally.

Rubio, a potential Republican presidential candidate for 2016 and an author of the sweeping immigration bill that passed the Senate in June but stalled in the House, made the comments Tuesday on "The Morning Show with Preston Scott" on Tallahassee radio station WFLA.

He noted that the Obama administration took action a year ago to give legal status to many immigrants brought here illegally as children. He said without congressional action, the president might well be tempted to do the same for everyone else here illegally, too.

"I believe that this president will be tempted, if nothing happens in Congress, he will be tempted to issue an executive order like he did for the DREAM Act kids a year ago where he basically legalizes 11 million people by the sign of a pen," Rubio said.

Rubio said the possibility highlighted the need for congressional action because the alternative would be legalization without benefits like border security and an E-Verify system to require employers to check their workers' legal status.

"We can't leave it, in my mind, the way it is because I think a year from now we could find ourselves with all 11 million people here legally under an executive order from the president, but no E-Verify, no more border security, no more border agents -- none of the other reforms that we desperately need," Rubio said.

The White House disputed Rubio's comments.

Asked whether Obama would be "tempted" to issue executive orders as Rubio suggested, White House spokesman Bobby Whithorne told The Associated Press, "No. The only solution to this problem is for Congress to fix the broken immigration system by passing comprehensive reform."

Rubio's comments came with lawmakers back home in their districts for Congress' five-week summer recess, which activists on both sides of the immigration issue are trying to use to make their case for or against action in the GOP-controlled House.

Under pressure from advocates for reform, several House Republicans have already indicated qualified support for a path to citizenship for the immigrants already here illegally, something that's part of the Senate bill but opposed by many conservatives. 

The conservative American Action Network spent $750,000 on pro-reform commercials. One ad aimed at Florida voters called the legislation "the toughest border security plan ever passed by Congress" and urged viewers to thank Rubio for "keeping his promise and fighting to secure the border."

Meanwhile those opposed to reform struggled to draw a crowd to a "Stop Amnesty Tour" event in Richmond, Va., Monday night.

But it remains unclear whether one side will clearly prevail come time for lawmakers to return to Washington in September, or what will happen then. GOP House leaders have said they plan to proceed with the immigration issue with single-issue bills, beginning with border security, so it remains to be seen whether they'll get to the point of entering negotiations with the Senate on a package that could reach Obama's desk.

Rubio's comments Tuesday tracked with speculation sometimes heard from immigration activists on the left about how to move forward if Congress never sends Obama a bill. The possibility of pressuring Obama to take additional executive actions has been discussed, though most advocates with ties to the White House say it's premature to focus on that idea.

Rubio recently spoke to about 50 conservative activists and other lawmakers at a meeting of the Senate's tea party caucus. Organizers said he breezed past immigration, instead devoting much of his speech to repealing the health law.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.