Sen. Marco Rubio has it backward. As he toured Florida this week, the Republican ripped the Affordable Care Act in public and defended immigration reform in private to his upset supporters. It would have been more useful to publicly embrace immigration reform and privately explain to conservatives why it would be foolish to force a government shutdown over the health care law. But Rubio is all about what's best for Rubio, not what's best for Florida.
The August congressional recess is time for advocates of immigration reform to build public support and pressure House Republicans to take up the Senate bill this fall. Rubio should be joining the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, manufacturers and technology company executives as they push for action. He was a key member of the bipartisan group that wrote the Senate bill and got it passed with 68 votes, and the son of Cuban immigrants has a compelling story.
Rubio could have visited Tampa Bay and talked with high-tech officials, explaining how his legislation would help them recruit skilled foreign workers. He could have stood in Plant City's fields and talked about how his bill would help bring in legal workers to pick the crops. He could have walked the University of South Florida campus and the streets of West Tampa, talking about the American dream and how his legislation includes both stronger borders and a path to citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants. He could have met publicly with Republican Reps. Gus Bilirakis of Palm Harbor, C.W. Bill Young of Indian Shores and Dennis Ross of Lakeland — all skeptics of comprehensive reform — to seek their support.
But Rubio can't take the heat, and we're not talking about Florida weather. Instead of publicly promoting his signature legislative accomplishment, the Republican privately talked with conservative activists in Gainesville and elsewhere who are angry with him about immigration. He is more intent on shoring up his political future than in securing immigration reform.
Of course, Rubio has been running back to the far right since immigration passed. He talks of cosponsoring legislation that would outlaw abortion after 20 weeks. He signed a brief before the U.S. Supreme Court to protect prayer before government meetings. He tried to blow up Republican Sen. John McCain's bipartisan agreement to confirm several key appointees to the Obama administration. Now Rubio threatens to help shut down the federal government next month unless money for health care reform is cut from an essential short-term spending bill. Even mainstream conservatives and opponents of the health care law consider that irresponsible.
Rubio argued this week that it would be President Barack Obama's fault if government shuts down over the fight over health care reform. Perhaps the junior senator is too young to remember what happened to congressional Republicans who shut down the government in a budget fight with President Bill Clinton.
Instead of demonizing health care reform, Rubio should be trying to improve it. Instead of starving it to death, he should be helping his constituents understand how it works. Instead of fanning partisan battles, he should be building consensus for a federal law that is not going away and that will help millions of Floridians.
Does Rubio represent all of Florida in the U.S. Senate, or only the tea party followers who helped him get there?