WASHINGTON — Sen. Marco Rubio on Wednesday joined a club of conservative Republicans that wants to slash government spending and opposes most of President Barack Obama's ideas.
But it was not the upstart tea party caucus. Rubio went a more standard route by taking a seat with the Senate Steering Committee, which consists of mostly Republicans and — he readily noted — is led by Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina, a tea party favorite.
Rubio got momentum from the tea party movement during his Senate campaign but always maintained some distance. He said he's not ready to join the newly formed (and small) caucus, but left the door open a crack.
"Really what I think is, the strength of the tea party comes from the grass roots," Rubio said in an interview, "that it is not a political organization, that it is not something run by politicians or people seeking higher office, but rather it is a movement of everyday citizens from all walks of life."
Wednesday was the rookie Florida senator's first real day on the job. He co-sponsored his first bill, a repeal of the health care overhaul being pushed by DeMint (and headed nowhere in a Democratic-controlled Senate) and cast his first vote, a resolution honoring the Tucson, Ariz., shooting victims and first responders.
Speaking to Florida reporters, Rubio addressed other issues:
• He expressed reservations about raising the federal debt limit and flatly said he would not if it's another temporary measure. By March the government should hit its $14.29 trillion debt limit and the Obama administration wants to raise it, having done so last year. Republicans are protesting in hopes of extracting spending cuts. The administration has warned that failure to raise the ceiling could result in a partial government shutdown.
• He sort of endorsed Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson's call for the Florida congressional delegation to do a better job getting money for Florida. "When it comes to spending, my No. 1 concern is where is the money coming from," Rubio said. "That being said, I do think Florida should get its fair share. And that's why the earmark process is so bad for Florida because it's not determined by merit. It's determined based on who's in power, who's in charge, who can control things and who can steer things their way. … Florida certainly has some meritorious projects."