Marco Rubio took office ready to push for a big policy change. He won support in his chamber, only to watch fellow Republicans on the other side of the Capitol pick apart the measure.
That’s not just the story of the U.S. senator’s push to rewrite the nation’s immigration laws, it was the recurring theme of his two years as Florida House speaker.
While Rubio’s political achievements have landed him on the cover of the New York Times Magazine, his policy record is less accomplished. With the immigration bill facing long odds in the U.S. House, Rubio, who said he’ll decide next year whether to run for president in 2016, is pivoting to issues that could solidify his standing with Republican voters.
“The jury is still out,” said U.S. Representative Dennis Ross, a Florida Republican who served in the state House with Rubio, when asked about the senator’s legislative record.
Since the comprehensive immigration bill that he helped write passed the Senate 68-32 last month, Rubio has shifted to core Republican topics.
He’s crafting a bill to prohibit abortions after 20 weeks of gestation, seeking support for a plan sponsored last year by Utah Republican Senator Mike Lee to ban the procedure in Washington, D.C., said a Republican who requested anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak publicly.
Last week, Rubio introduced a bill to cap U.S. payments to the United Nations and, from the Senate floor, urged lawmakers not to fund President Barack Obama’s 2010 health-care law.
“Anyone who votes for the short-term budget that funds Obamacare is voting to move forward with Obamacare,” Rubio said in the July 18 speech. “If you pay for it, you own it.”
Rubio, 42, is seeking to repair his standing among Republicans unhappy that he pushed to grant 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. an eventual path to citizenship. He slipped to fifth in an Iowa poll of potential 2016 Republican presidential candidates, according to a July 11 survey from Raleigh, North Carolina-based Public Policy Polling. Rubio was first in the same poll on Feb. 7.
Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican who also helped craft the immigration measure, said the push for the measure was a “campaign” that needed the backing of Rubio, the son of Cuban immigrants.
“I fought for immigration reform, remember, and ran for president and at least got the nomination of my party,” McCain, who lost to Obama in 2008, said of his work on immigration before that presidential race. “To think that this is some kind of poison pill that he’s swallowing, it isn’t.”
McCain credited Rubio with helping win bipartisan passage of the Senate bill with support from 14 of the chamber’s 46 Republicans.
The biggest hurdle for the measure is a reluctant Republican majority in the other chamber, a familiar obstacle for Rubio.
When Rubio presided over the Florida House in 2007 and 2008, he was the first Cuban-American and the youngest person to hold the post, at age 35. Republicans had lost seven seats when he was in charge of their 2006 election effort, the party’s worst showing since taking the chamber majority in 1996.
Even so, he was brimming with confidence. Rubio had just published a 169-page book, “100 Innovative Ideas for Florida’s Future,” that would serve as a road map for his agenda for the next two years.
Each idea passed the Florida House, while the state Senate approved only 24 and parts of 10 others, according to a 2010 analysis by PolitiFact, a St. Petersburg, Florida-based fact- checking group.
Ideas from the book that became law included scheduling Florida’s presidential primary earlier in the year, increasing tax credits for companies that pay for school vouchers and expanding DNA collection to all felony offenders.
“He was full of ideas, but he needed the maturity that comes with time and age,” state Representative Gayle Harrell, a Port St. Lucie Republican who served with Rubio, said of his struggles with the state Senate.
The signature issue in Rubio’s book was a plan to eliminate property taxes and offset the losses with a state sales tax increase.
In his 2012 autobiography, “An American Son,” Rubio described the tax plan as “the boldest reform in our 100 Ideas project.”
Although Rubio’s fellow Republicans controlled the Senate and another occupied the governor’s office, he couldn’t gain consensus on the issue.
In his autobiography, Rubio wrote that he should have tried sooner to find agreement. He maintained that he was “shorthanded in the fight” when several members of his leadership team left and that then-Governor Charlie Crist, whom Rubio would beat in the 2010 U.S. Senate race, “was working with Senate Republicans to undermine us.”
“For better or worse, property tax reform would be my legacy, and it was incomplete, to put it charitably,” Rubio wrote.
In a special session, Rubio compromised on a tax plan with the state Senate, only to have the Florida Supreme Court strike the referendum from the ballot.
When lawmakers returned again in another special session, Senate Republicans passed a smaller tax cut before Rubio could find agreement on a new plan. The Senate sent it to the House and adjourned.
“We had done our best, and fallen short,” Rubio wrote. “I accepted the hard reality of our situation, and let the bill pass.”
Supporters of the Senate’s immigration measure are concerned that it won’t be enacted because of opposition from many House Republicans. Rubio has said he won’t pressure his colleagues on the other side of the Capitol to fall in line.
“He believes the House should be given the time and space to come up with their own immigration legislation,” Alex Conant, a Rubio spokesman, said in an e-mail. “He won’t be part of any attempt to pressure them.”
A year after the Florida property tax flop on the last day of the 2008 legislative session, Rubio’s last as speaker, he was handed another all-or-nothing proposition from the Senate.
This time, the issue was a Senate bill requiring insurance companies to cover children with autism. Rubio had backed a House bill that would have required coverage for Down syndrome, spina bifida and other disabilities. House Republicans urged him to reject the Senate plan.
“I couldn’t do it,” Rubio wrote. “Helping some kids was better than not helping any.”
U.S. Representative Dan Webster of Orlando, the second- ranking Republican in the state Senate while Rubio was speaker, said his Florida colleague has a record of taking on big issues, the kind that can take years to turn into law and are easy to criticize.
“Rubio dreamed big,” Webster said of Rubio’s two years as Florida House speaker. “He’s exhibited courage to dream and say some things that are difficult to deliver.”
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