Wait, Marco Rubio Would Shut Down the Government Over Obamacare?

The Florida Republican was an establishment favorite on immigration. Now he’s an insurgent with a new cause.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., speaks at the Faith and Freedom Coalition Road to Majority Conference in Washington, Thursday, June 13, 2013.
National Journal
Jill Lawrence
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Jill Lawrence
Aug. 12, 2013, 2 a.m.

Sen. Marco Ru­bio of Flor­ida won praise from the Re­pub­lic­an es­tab­lish­ment and lost tea-party sup­port by play­ing a lead role in this year’s push for im­mig­ra­tion re­form. Now he’s turned that dy­nam­ic on its head by join­ing Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul of Ken­tucky at the fore­front of a drive to shut down the gov­ern­ment un­less Obama­care is de­fun­ded.

Ru­bio’s pen­du­lum swing may or may not ul­ti­mately ap­pease those angry about the pivotal help he provided to win pas­sage of the Sen­ate’s com­pre­hens­ive im­mig­ra­tion bill, with its path to cit­izen­ship for most un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants. What’s already cer­tain is that some es­tab­lish­ment fig­ures who ap­plauded him on im­mig­ra­tion, in­clud­ing Sens. John Mc­Cain of Ari­zona and Lind­sey Gra­ham of South Car­o­lina, are now serving up dis­ap­prov­al. Oth­er Re­pub­lic­an crit­ics of the shut­down threat in­clude Sens. Tom Coburn of Ok­lahoma and Richard Burr of North Car­o­lina, as well as 2012 pres­id­en­tial nom­in­ee Mitt Rom­ney.

Busi­ness lob­by­ists are also dis­missive, with sev­er­al telling Na­tion­al Journ­al that Ru­bio & Co. are ig­nor­ing facts on the ground — to wit, a Demo­crat­ic pres­id­ent and Sen­ate. Con­ser­vat­ive colum­nist Charles Krau­tham­mer called the de­fund­ing ef­fort “nuts.” Com­ment­ary writer Peter Wehner, a White House aide dur­ing the Re­agan, Bush I, and Bush II ad­min­is­tra­tions, got per­son­al with a column head­lined “Marco Ru­bio’s Folly.”

What’s more, Ru­bio may be sow­ing con­fu­sion about his polit­ic­al iden­tity as he heads to­ward a widely ex­pec­ted run for pres­id­ent in 2016. Would he be an es­tab­lish­ment con­tender, along the lines of a Chris Christie, Scott Walk­er, or Jeb Bush, or an in­sur­gent like Paul or Cruz? “It ap­pears right now as if the path is not clear for Ru­bio. And some­times if one foot is in each camp, neither camp ad­opts you as their own,” says Uni­versity of New Hamp­shire polit­ic­al sci­ent­ist Dante Scala, an ex­pert on the state’s first-in-the-na­tion primary.

What set off Wehner was Ru­bio’s as­ser­tion to ra­dio host Mark Lev­in last week that “if you’re will­ing to fund this thing, you can’t pos­sibly say you’re against it.” In oth­er words, he’ll vote against a bill to keep the gov­ern­ment run­ning un­less the meas­ure cuts off money for Pres­id­ent Obama’s health care law.

 “So is that the new Ru­bio stand­ard?” Wehner asks. “Are we to be­lieve he sup­por­ted every item fun­ded in every budget bill he voted for while serving in the Flor­ida Le­gis­lature? Or that in the fu­ture he’ll sup­port every pro­gram of every budget he votes for in the United States Sen­ate?”

Wehner also takes is­sue with Ru­bio’s damn-the-polit­ics at­ti­tude to­ward a gov­ern­ment shut­down un­less the pres­id­ent agrees to de­fund Obama­care, and ques­tions wheth­er Ru­bio and the oth­er mem­bers of what he calls “the Sui­cide Caucus” are tethered to real­ity, giv­en that Obama and the Demo­crat­ic Sen­ate will nev­er “pull the plug” on that sig­na­ture achieve­ment.

Be­ing a ringlead­er on the road to a gov­ern­ment shut­down could well be ris­ki­er than be­ing a cheer­lead­er for a path to cit­izen­ship. There are plenty of GOP pres­id­en­tial pro­spects who share Ru­bio’s views on im­mig­ra­tion, or have sim­il­ar views, or will by 2015, when the party’s dire need for His­pan­ic out­reach and votes in a na­tion­al race be­comes im­possible to ig­nore. Fur­ther­more, wheth­er it suc­ceeds or fails, im­mig­ra­tion re­form will be in the rear­view mir­ror by then and not all that sa­li­ent to the na­tion­al con­ver­sa­tion.

“Time would do the best for Marco Ru­bio, more than any­thing,” says Craig Robin­son, a GOP strategist in Iowa, home of the first caucuses of the primary sea­son. And he’ll need that time if he’s go­ing to bring con­ser­vat­ives back in­to his fold. “I think it is go­ing to be a while be­fore they’re mes­mer­ized by Marco Ru­bio again,” says Robin­son, who runs a web­site called The Iowa Re­pub­lic­an.

Ru­bio ran against Obama­care in his 2010 cam­paign and has been a con­sist­ent op­pon­ent of the Af­ford­able Care Act. Also, after vot­ing once for a stop­gap budget meas­ure to keep the gov­ern­ment run­ning, he has since voted against all such meas­ures, called con­tinu­ing res­ol­u­tions. He’s now say­ing he will vote for a second CR, due next month, but only if it de­funds Obama­care. “There’s a lot of grass­roots sup­port for this po­s­i­tion. You’ve seen most of the con­ser­vat­ive or­gan­iz­a­tions sup­port­ing this, as well as lead­ing con­ser­vat­ives out­side of Con­gress say­ing that this is the right ap­proach,” says Ru­bio spokes­man Alex Con­ant. He also says of Ru­bio, “It would be weird if he wasn’t fight­ing to re­peal Obama­care.”

But that misses the point. Pretty much all the Re­pub­lic­ans in Con­gress op­pose the health care law. It’s the gov­ern­ment-shut­down threat most of them are ques­tion­ing, be­cause, un­like the out­side groups and in­di­vidu­als, they are wor­ried about the real-world im­pact of such a drastic de­vel­op­ment — on Amer­ic­ans and on the GOP.

Vet­er­an Re­pub­lic­an strategist Rich Ga­len says Ru­bio, Cruz, and Paul are show­ing a lack of season­ing by in­vit­ing such a con­front­a­tion. “The rami­fic­a­tions of something like that are far broad­er than what it sounds like,” Ga­len says. He should know. He ex­per­i­enced the 1995-96 shut­down, and the polit­ic­al dam­age it did to his party, as a top aide to then-House Speak­er Newt Gin­grich.

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