WASHINGTON — Marco Rubio stepped out of a meeting in the Capitol on Monday and an army of reporters rushed him, thrusting recorders in his face. He cracked up laughing, as if to say, Come on, I'm just the new guy from Florida.
But the new guy is, for now, one of the hottest things in national politics, a face of the Republican resurrection, the man who improbably toppled a popular governor to win a seat in the U.S. Senate.
Monday, the 39-year-old senator-elect and other new lawmakers began a weeklong orientation on Capitol Hill. Reminders of Rubio's status were all around, but he was trying to play it down, aware of how a splashy landing could offend an exclusive body that values hard work and seniority.
Asked about the fanfare, Rubio said, "I was watching the NFL yesterday, you guys tell me. I didn't follow any of this stuff here."
He began Monday with an 8:30 a.m. meeting with Florida Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson. They pledged to work together on key issues facing Florida but already a difference has emerged: whether to ban the time-honored practice of "earmarks," money stuffed into the budget for parochial projects.
Rubio was an early backer of an effort to ban them, one resisted by veteran GOP lawmakers. But Monday, Senate Republican leader Mitch Mc- Connell of Kentucky said he would go along with the move.
"Make no mistake," McConnell said. "I know the good that has come from the projects I have helped support throughout my state. But there is simply no doubt that the abuse of this practice has caused Americans to view it as a symbol of the waste and out-of-control spending that every Republican in Washington is determined to fight."
The budget for fiscal year 2010 included 9,499 earmarks worth $15.9 billion — about one-half of 1 percent of the $3.5 trillion federal budget. Still, earmarks have become controversial symbols in recent years with scandals over lobbyists and lawmakers seeking favors for political donors.
Nelson and Rubio discussed earmarks in their half-hour private meeting. Nelson told reporters later that some are "flim-flam" and should be eliminated but defended others as having immense benefit to Florida.
He singled out budget items that secured a nuclear aircraft carrier near Jacksonville, creating jobs, as well as money that went to dredge shipping channels.
The ban, which comes up for a vote among Senate Republicans this afternoon and is likely to pass, would apply to only the GOP. Democrats, who hold a slim majority in the Senate, have not called for a ban.
House Republicans have already backed a similar proposal, which will come up for a vote later this week.
In the Florida Legislature, where Rubio was House speaker from 2006-08, earmarks are called "turkeys" and Rubio got his share, in the millions of dollars. But on the campaign trail, he said he would swear them off, citing the national debt and public outcry over spending.
"Obviously, I want Florida to be fairly represented in this process," Rubio said Monday. "On the other hand, I think this country owes $13.5 trillion and growing, and we have to deal with that very seriously. … It's not an easy issue, but we'll confront it."
The earmark difference aside, the Nelson-Rubio meeting appeared cordial. There has been an undercurrent of tension between Nelson and the man who currently occupies the seat Rubio will assume in January, Sen. George LeMieux.
LeMieux was appointed by Gov. Charlie Crist after Republican Sen. Mel Martinez quit in 2009 and has not masked his desire to challenge Nelson in 2012. Nelson called Rubio after the election and invited him to his office Monday.
On the way in, the two stopped before a portrait gallery and Nelson gave a short history lesson.
Rubio pointed to a picture of a Florida senator from long ago who wore a ZZ Top-style beard.
"I was thinking about letting something like that grow," he joked of Sen. Samuel Pasco, who served from 1887-1899.
Rubio later joined other new Republicans for a meeting with McConnell and then began orientation on Senate rules and ethics. He dashed from one meeting to the next, trying to limit his exposure to reporters and feigning amazement at the attention.
Never mind that Rubio has already been on the cover of Time and that nearly 300 reporters covered him on Election Day in Miami.
On Monday, the Washington Post listed Rubio as 10th on a list of Republicans with the best chance of winning the presidential nomination.
For all the hype, Rubio has to show he can accomplish something. More immediately, he has to find his way around.
"I lost my guide," he said as he moved quickly past reporters.
"I don't know where I'm going."
Alex Leary can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @learyspt.