TAMPA — Florida's unemployment rate may be stuck in the double digits, but Republican U.S. Senate candidate Marco Rubio is standing with his party leaders in Washington in opposing the extension of unemployment benefits for millions of jobless Americans.
Only if specific cuts were identified to offset the $34 billion cost of extending benefits would he support it, Rubio said while campaigning in Tampa Monday.
"At some point someone has to draw a line in the sand and say we are serious about not growing debt," said the Miami Republican, the only major candidate for the Senate in Florida who opposes extending benefits.
Unemployment benefits have expired for more than 2 million Americans, and nearly 200,000 Floridians, in recent months while Republican senators have repeatedly blocked efforts to extend benefits to the long-term unemployed, insisting that the $34 billion cost be offset by spending cuts or unspent stimulus funds.
"Gov. Crist supports the extension of unemployment benefits. In these challenging economic times, we have an obligation to help people keep a roof over their heads and provide for their families while looking for gainful employment," a spokeswoman for Crist's independent campaign said Monday, the day before a key vote in which Democrats plan to swear in a new senator from West Virginia, giving them the votes to overcome a Republican-led filibuster.
Democrats are seeking to turn the unemployment benefits debate into a wedge issue against Republicans, who in turn hope to capitalize on the growing concern about the federal government's debt and spending.
"With Washington Republicans nearly united in their opposition to extending unemployment benefits, Marco Rubio is proving his loyalty lies with them and not with Floridians," said a statement from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
Rubio picked up the endorsement of the National Federation of Independent Business and met with a group of small-business owners Monday at the Tampa Bay Brewing Co.
As he spoke about the need to make the Bush tax cuts permanent, a TV nearby showed President Barack Obama in the Rose Garden scolding Republicans for opposing the extension of unemployment benefits.
While stressing his concern about the debt, Rubio is not calling on Congress to identify specific spending cuts to offset tax cuts he proposes or the cost, $1.6 trillion over 10 years, to extend the Bush administration's tax cuts due to expire at the end of this year.
"We do have to cut certain taxes like double taxation on capital gains, the corporate tax rate," Rubio said.
"But the most important thing we need to do is extend the current tax rate. If you don't extend the current tax rate, you're actually raising taxes beginning next year, and I don't know of anybody in this room who believes that's good for business and job creation in America."
The two leading Democrats in the race, U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek of Miami and businessman Jeff Greene of Palm Beach, favor extending the unemployment benefits.
"He's reading right off the hard-right song sheet," Meek said of Rubio. "We have a number of Floridians who have been working their entire lives and this is the first time they've ever asked for any assistance whatsoever."
Greene criticized Republicans for giving the wealthiest Americans billions of dollars in tax cuts, and then obstructing help for hurting Americans.
"The American people, and especially American workers, deserve a government that will not turn their back on them in time of need. I know what it's like to lose one's livelihood, as my father lost his," said Greene, a billionaire investor. "That's why I'm running for U.S. Senate. I will fight to ensure all Americans have a voice in Washington."
Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson and Republican Sen. George LeMieux are expected to vote with their respective party positions today.
Times/Herald staff writers Alex Leary and Beth Reinhard contributed to this report. Adam Smith can be reached at email@example.com.