WASHINGTON — If there were any doubts that former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush has no intention of returning to a ballot anytime soon, he laid them to rest Friday, in a rare appearance at a congressional hearing.
The Republican former governor was invited to speak to the House Budget Committee by the committee's chairman, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., author of a federal budget despised by Democrats in part for its proposed changes to the Medicare program for seniors. Bush's remarks focused on removing barriers to free enterprise, but throughout the hearing, he was free with his opinions on all sorts of other policy matters.
"This will prove I'm not running for anything," Bush said, when talking about how he could support a bipartisan commission to examine the tax code for loopholes. He also noted that he thought immigration reform could be a strategy for sustained economic growth — a position that he said puts him "a little out of step with my own party."
Bush's candor made it clear that he sees his place as a senior Republican whose opinions carry a lot of weight in his party but whose private sector life gives him a measure of independence. In Washington, that ability to speak freely makes him a refreshing figure. He was followed out of the hearing to his taxi by a throng of reporters so deep that, in the crush, one camerawoman tumbled backward in the hallway of the Cannon Office Building.
No, Bush told the scrum, he's not interested in being vice president.
"I'm going to support Gov. Romney, he's a great guy," Bush said. "I believe he has an excellent chance of being elected. I'm going to do what I can to (help him) be elected."
But from the window of his taxi, Bush said he does think highly of his friend Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., for the job.
"That would be my choice, but I'm not Mitt Romney," Bush said. "Marco would bring an incredible energy, he's the most articulate spokesman for conservative principles I think in America today, and he's my friend. So I'm a little biased. But I think he would be extraordinary."
Bush also said he likes Rubio's immigration proposal, a Republican alternative to the DREAM Act. He said that Republicans need to work on attracting Hispanic voters by highlighting their economic policies over those of Democrats.
Bush hasn't testified in front of a congressional hearing since he talked about disaster preparations during the brutal 2005-06 hurricane season — and it's a good guess that he won't return any time soon.
"This is a gotcha kind of environment," he said, seemingly taken aback by the shrill partisan tone of the hearing.
From the moment it began, the hearing focused on the differences between Republicans and the White House on spending.
President Barack Obama's policies "take us in the wrong direction," Ryan said, before introducing Bush. "He has called for higher hurdles and greater complexity in the tax code. He insists on wasteful spending on his political allies and regulatory monstrosities that protect the entrenched at the expense of the entrepreneur."
Not to be outdone, the top Democrat on the committee, Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., said that former President George W. Bush's financial policies "lifted the yachts," but not the rest of the boats.
"I didn't come to criticize anybody, for the record. I came to share my views," Bush said in response. "I'm not used to the 9 o'clock food fight that starts bright and early here in Washington. I'm from Florida, where we don't start that way in life. But it's great to be here."