As for Rubio, he had little to lose by voting no on the fiscal-cliff deal. He didn’t risk scuttling the agreement by joining only five other Republican senators, including tea party favorites Rand Paul of Kentucky and Mike Lee of Utah. Rubio’s status as one of the most prominent Hispanic Republicans in the country at a time when the GOP is desperate to make inroads in that community also ensures that his voice will be heard, even if he crosses colleagues on Capitol Hill.
The differences between Ryan and Rubio are also evident in the choices made by their political action committees. Of the more than $1.6 million that Rubio’s Reclaim America PAC spent between July 2011 and late November, only 4.6 percent went to candidates, according to a National Journal analysis in December. The biggest chunk went to consultants. Ryan’s Prosperity PAC, in contrast, gave 26 percent of the $4 million it raised to candidates.
Rubio’s explanation for voting against the fiscal-cliff deal reflects a firm conservative posture that leaves little room for a potential GOP rival to outflank him. “Thousands of small businesses, not just the wealthy, will now be forced to decide how they'll pay this new tax, and, chances are, they'll do it by firing employees, cutting back their hours and benefits, or postponing the new hire they were looking to make,” Rubio said in a written statement. “And to make matters worse, it does nothing to bring our dangerous debt under control.”
Asked for examples of Rubio crossing his party, a spokesman pointed to his support for President Obama’s choice for ambassador to El Salvador, who was opposed by conservatives such as outgoing Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina, and his vote in favor of sugar subsidies, which was criticized by The Wall Street Journal. But Rubio has mostly toed the party line during his first two years in office and boasts an A-plus, 100 percent rating from Americans for Prosperity. (Ryan, in contrast, has a 74 percent rating from the free-market advocacy group, in part because he refuses to pledge to oppose climate-change legislation that would raise taxes.)
“Sen. Rubio has been very consistent in his belief that we have got to get a handle on spending in order to get a handle on the deficit, and this bill on the fiscal cliff did nothing to reduce spending and could even add $4 trillion in debt,’’ said Republican pollster Whit Ayres, who advises Rubio.
Immigration could be the issue that allows Rubio to prove his independence and leadership abilities, as Ryan has done on Medicare reform. Rubio has said he supports giving legal status to young, undocumented residents who have served in the military, although he has yet to put his name to a bill. “He’s clearly been working to build a consensus on a version of the Dream Act that could actually pass,” Ayres said. “Immigration is an extraordinarily emotional and intense issue, and he clearly is willing to take a position that is not exactly in sync with the Republican base.”
The comparisons between Ryan and Rubio are likely to continue until one of them rules out a presidential bid. When the two Republican hotshots shared a stage one month ago at a banquet honoring Jack Kemp, Ryan quipped, “Know any good diners in Iowa or New Hampshire?” No doubt two of the best communicators in the Republican Party will relish explaining their fiscal-cliff votes and framing the upcoming debates over budget and tax policy.