WASHINGTON — Sen. Marco Rubio didn't wait for the bipartisan budget accord to drop before calling it a failure, on Sean Hannity's radio show.
When the deal — approved 332-94 Thursday by the House — was announced this week, the Florida Republican instantly issued a strongly worded statement then continued the offensive on Mike Huckabee's radio show and Fox News.
Rubio has a new favorite cause, putting him at odds with Rep. Paul Ryan and other Republicans keen to move beyond budget cliffhangers, show the public they can get things done and break the growing stronghold of outside groups such as Heritage Action.
"Here's the problem: It raises it by $60 billion, the spending, but it pays it over 10 years," Rubio told Megyn Kelly of Fox News on Wednesday. "Well, you know how that works. Over the next couple years they'll forget it, and they will keep borrowing more. The fundamental problem that we have here is that we have a government that continues to spend more money than it takes in."
Rubio has consistently talked about dealing with long-term budget and debt issues. He's also voted against virtually every spending bill. But his aggressive positioning this week — his media appearances are widely publicized by his press office — reveals political calculations.
"Senator Rubio strikes me as a person not only highly attuned to criticisms of him from the base, but overly reactive to them, adjusting and responding moment by moment," Peter Wehner, who served in the past three Republican administrations, wrote in a column Thursday for Commentary. "One senses that believing he badly hurt himself with the base because of his stand on immigration, he's now scrambling to ingratiate himself with it. It isn't a particularly impressive thing to watch."
Rubio is still recovering from the beating he took from conservatives after helping to write the Senate immigration bill. The budget debate, like the ongoing fight over Obamcacare, is an opportunity for Rubio to regain credibility among the grass roots as he considers a 2016 run for president.
Where he once showed a gutsiness to compromise on the divisive issue of immigration, he is now positioning himself as a no-compromise budget hawk.
Rubio said he opposes the budget deal in part because it eased up on across-the-board budget cuts known as the sequester. But Rubio voted against the 2011 deal that resulted in the sequester.
"He opposed sequester because it was a dumb way to cut spending, but has said that we shouldn't undo it without seriously reforming long-term debt drivers," Rubio spokesman Alex Conant said.
Tea party conservatives have come to embrace the sequester as an effective tool in curbing government spending. Rubio is trying to straddle both sides, as he has on a number of issues, from flood insurance rates (he's in favor of relief for homeowners but hasn't signed onto a bill, which some conservatives oppose) to foreign policy (he tells audiences he's neither a hawk nor a dove).
The media savvy 42-year-old has taken his new message to places that were once a hotbed of contempt for his immigration dealings. "Exclusive–Rubio: Budget Deal Threatens American Dream," read the headline on a piece Rubio penned Wednesday for Breitbart.com. (Reader reaction ranged from praise to accusations he was trying to save face.)
On Huckabee's radio program, Rubio tried to make a larger case about the way Washington works.
"It's not just this budget, it's this lack of long-term thinking around here," he said. "There are no long-term solutions apparently possible in Washington, and we are running out of time. That's why I've become opposed to the deal they've come up with."
While Rubio bemoans the lack of long-term thinking, he's espousing smaller steps on immigration, which had once seemed like his ticket to national prominence, the leader of a Republican Party struggling in a diversifying America.
Piecemeal immigration reform is the reality in the more conservative House, but Rubio's newer tone seems as much an attempt to soften his ownership of the comprehensive bill as it is pragmatic.
On Hannity's radio show, a listener could have assumed Rubio disagreed with the sweeping approach he helped craft. "Let's move on the things we agree on and then we can create the conditions where perhaps we can finish the job," Rubio said.
Immigration reform came together in the spirit of compromise that Ryan pursued with Democratic Sen. Patty Murray, albeit in more modest terms. Ryan and Murray, defending their budget deal, effectively said what Rubio told Hannity.
Rubio knows the pain Ryan, a potential rival for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination, is now feeling from some conservatives but is playing up the no-compromise mantra. In a fundraising letter Wednesday for his Reclaim America PAC, Rubio wrote:
"If we had a conservative majority in the Senate, Republicans wouldn't need to compromise on our principles to avoid another government shutdown."
On Thursday morning, a frustrated Ryan suggested Rubio was playing political games. "Read the deal and get back to me," Ryan said on MSNBC's Morning Joe. "People are going to do what they need to do. In the minority (meaning Senate Republicans), you don't have the burden of governing, of getting things done."
Alex Leary can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @learyreports.