Rubio avoids confrontations over national health care
Sen. Marco Rubio is spending his congressional break reconnecting with grass-roots conservatives and tea party members, people he might have alienated in discussions of the national health care law and immigration. ASSOCIATED PRESS FILE PHOTO
TAMPA ญญ— During his August recess in Florida, a time when members of Congress are sometimes exposed to criticism from their constituents, Sen. Marco Rubio is playing it safe — avoiding confrontations with the left while working behind closed doors to shore up his support on the right.
After taking the lead in Washington advocating shutting down the government to halt the Affordable Care Act, or “Obamacare,” Rubio is avoiding public forums where Democrats have promised to confront its opponents during the recess.
He’s not avoiding the subject of immigration reform, which has alienated some of his strongest and earliest supporters, but he’s talking about it mainly when asked.
Rubio won’t attend a “Defund Obamacare Town Hall” being held Wednesday in Tampa by the conservative Heritage Action for America and former South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint. Affordable Care Act supporters are holding their own event in Tampa to respond and are likely to have a presence at the town hall meeting.
Meanwhile, Rubio is holding a series of unannounced, invitation-only meetings with conservative activists to try to win back those who oppose his support for a comprehensive immigration-reform bill.
Plans for such an event in Tampa are going forward, said a local tea party activist who was asked to coordinate it.
But unlike other members of the bipartisan “gang of eight” senators who sponsored the immigration bill, Rubio hasn’t been active in urging the House to pass the bill.
He’s stayed on the sidelines of the immigration battle since the bill passed the Senate in June, instead devoting himself to his high-profile campaign against “Obamacare.”
For Rubio, this approach makes political sense.
Known to be interested in possible 2016 presidential run, Rubio’s popularity ratings took a hit over his backing of immigration reform, letting other conservatives slip ahead of him in polls about the 2016 GOP nomination.
He needs to shore up his conservative base — and attacking the Affordable Care Act is a popular cause among conservatives. Immigration reform isn’t.
Last week, Rubio took a three-day swing through conservative North Florida, attending about half a dozen public events. All were held in venues where no public confrontation was likely — chambers of commerce, Rotary Club lunches and a tour of Apalachicola Bay with Gov. Rick Scott.
At those events, he talked about his opposition to “Obamacare,” barely mentioning immigration reform unless asked.
But at the same time, he’s holding meetings to which only conservative and tea party activists are invited, at which Rubio expects and answers questions about immigration — the subject that has put off many of his strongest and earliest supporters.
About 100 people attended one such event in Gainesville, said GOP strategist Alex Patton, who was one of them.
They were “grass-roots activists, the people who go out and hold up signs and work polls,” not prominent donors or political leaders, Patton said. “It was his effort to go back out and remind the grass-roots activists why they like him.”
In a brief stump speech, Rubio talked about “Obamacare,” then took questions, including one on immigration.
“I thought he handled it well,” Patton said. “He was unapologetic, direct, straightforward. He took the venom out of the issue.”
Tim Curtis of Tampa said he’s working with Rubio’s staff to set up a similar meeting, and he believes he was asked to be involved because he organized an anti-immigration reform demonstration held outside Rubio’s Tampa office in June.
Curtis said he believes Rubio’s efforts are “well-intentioned” but doubts he’ll win the crowd over.
“Our question is whether this is anything different from what we’ve had in the past,” Curtis said. “I don’t trust that the federal government will do what they’re supposed to do.”
In a news release before the recess, Rubio said the purpose of the break is for Congress members to go home and “have to confront the people that elected them. ... Then you come back to Washington and hopefully turn their opinions into reality. That’s what I’ll be doing during that time.”
In an email response to questions, Rubio spokesman Alex Conant confirmed that Rubio has held “private meetings with conservatives and supporters” in Orlando and Jacksonville as well as Gainesville — “routine meetings for Sen. Rubio to fill in his friends and supporters about our agenda in the Senate and get their input.”
He said Rubio is not avoiding open public forums. “We’ve held several events open to the public where he’s answered questions, including some tough questions about his efforts to reform the immigration system and defund Obamacare,” Conant said.
The conservative, tea party-linked organization FreedomWorks, however, which has conducted a campaign to demand that Congress members hold town hall meetings during the recess, lists Rubio as holding none and is urging members to demand one.
Town hall meetings during the recess are less common this year than in the past, according to national news reports. In 2009, recess town halls became scenes of bitter, shouting confrontations between conservatives and members of Congress who backed the Affordable Care Act, including one held by Tampa Rep. Kathy Castor, a Democratic supporter of the law.
This year, Rep. Daniel Webster, R-Orlando, who is holding town hall meetings, had a couple of less-chaotic confrontations with “Obamacare” supporters.
Concerning the Heritage event, Conant said Rubio “has other commitments this week and cannot be in Tampa” but supports the effort.
Meanwhile, other members of the gang of eight, including Republican senators John McCain and Jeff Flake of Arizona, have held town hall meetings to urge their supporters to contact House members about the immigration bill, according to the congressional newsletter The Hill.
But Conant said Rubio “has always said that the House would have its own process, and that House Republicans should be given the time and space to develop their own reforms.”