In defending government subsidies for the sugar industry, Sen. Marco Rubio calls it a matter of national security.
Eliminating the program while other countries use similar programs, Rubio has said, would leave the U.S. "at the mercy of a foreign country for food security."
But a number of conservative voices are rejecting that argument. "It's not fair to people who focus on national security to burden them with corporate welfare as a justification," anti-tax leader Grover Norquist said on Tuesday in an interview following a meeting on Capitol Hill that took aim at the subsidies.
"He's from Florida," Norquist said. "But at the end of the day, people have to decide if they want to run to be president to be a national leader, as opposed to a regional leader."
The meeting was held by the Coalition for Sugar Reform, which is made up of candy makers, bakers, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and groups such as Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform and Club for Growth. The coalition says the sugar program has artificially increased the price of sugar, costing jobs and consumers.
Rubio was not the focus, though he was invoked as the issue got some attention on the campaign trail with Sen. Ted Cruz criticizing "corporate welfare" during a recent debate. Jeb Bush also now says he no longer supports the program.
Norquist says the momentum is building and cited the rise of Uber, which has taken on the well-protected taxi industry, and significant votes against the Export-Import bank, which many Republicans and some Democrats see as corporate welfare.
"We've made major progress," Norquist said.
Like Norquist, Bill O'Conner of the Sweetener Users Association said Rubio's stance is not hard to explain. "I think Sen. Rubio has been a traditional Florida politician. He's had a lot of support from the industry and he's basically trying to stick with his folks."
But O'Conner too sees a shift. "It survives best in the shadows and when there's a lot of big flood lights on it, they have a hard time explaining it. Mr. Rubio at least has the expiation that he has constituents involved."
Rubio has railed himself against corporate welfare and opposed reauthorization of the Ex-Im Bank. But he has tried to balance the sugar question, which has come up at times on the campaign trail and drawing attention from the news media. "Marco Rubio's Billion-Dollar Sugar Addiction," read a headline last week in National Review.
The article noted that Cruz's line of attack was dismissed by Rubio's campaign manager, Terry Sullivan, who told reporters that ".0000001 percent of the American people" care.
"He may be right," the article stated, "but Rubio's support for the subsidy raises questions about whether his relationship with a top financial supporter is pushing him into positions that contradict his broader policy platform."
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Rubio's presidential campaign has received more than $20,000 from Florida Crystals, the company started by the Fanjul family and long a supporter of Rubio's political career. As National Review noted, after Rubio announced in April he was running he walked off the stage "into the embrace of Jose 'Pepe' Fanjul."
A day after the debate, Rubio defended the program on Good Morning America, saying the U.S. program should not end unless other countries get rid of sugar supports. "I'm not going to wipe out an American industry that happens to have a lot of workers in Florida by unilaterally disarming."
Despite any momentum, the sugar industry remains potent in politics, its reach not only in sugar producing states such as Florida but those such as North Dakota and Montana that grow sugar beets.