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Sounding like a tea partier, Marco Rubio is stirring the pot

Breaking out of his low profile, first-term Florida Sen. Marco Rubio shows up on three media outlets, saying he won't vote for raising the debt limit unless Congress gets serious about tax reform, a balanced-budget amendment and Medicare and Social Security. His vote isn't crucial, but he is a 'tea party' favorite and seen as a rising star in the GOP.

March 30, 2011|By James Oliphant, Washington Bureau

Reporting from Washington — Marco Rubio, it appears, has rediscovered his inner tea partier.

Branded a GOP comer, the first-term senator from Florida has kept a low profile nationally since his election five months ago. That has changed in a hurry. Along with penning an Op-Ed article in Wednesday's Wall Street Journal in which he said he would not vote to raise the U.S. debt limit unless Congress begins to dramatically reshape the federal budgetary footprint, Rubio also gave interviews to Fox News' Sean Hannity and ABC News.

Essentially, Rubio is picking up where he left off during his campaign last summer, when he crafted an insurgent message around slashing federal spending and whittling the size of government. Though he was backed by Florida's "tea party" movement in his Senate bid, Rubio has since tried to style himself as an independent, albeit conservative, voice in the new Congress.

But like the tea partiers in the House rebelling against the GOP leadership, which is working to strike a deal to avert a government shutdown, Rubio is making it clear that he's not in the Senate to play ball with the moderates. He earlier had complained about the wave of temporary continuing budget resolutions to keep the government running -- and now he says he won't support a debt-limit increase unless Congress gets serious about tax reform, a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution and a reworking of Medicare and Social Security.

Tall orders to be sure, and things that are unlikely to happen before the debt-limit issue surfaces on the Senate floor next month. But Rubio is issuing his markers -- and the likelihood that the Senate can work without his vote hands him a sort of free-fire zone, the same space occupied by one of his political mentors, Jim DeMint.

"We cannot continue on this road," Rubio told Hannity on Tuesday night. "Here's what the critics are going to say: 'Well, we don't have enough time to do all of that.' That's not true. These ideas have been around here for a long time. Everyone knows exactly what needs to be done. The problem is they don't want to do it."

On ABC's "Good Morning America" Wednesday, Rubio said that although he would like to avoid a government shutdown, he seeks a final budget for the current fiscal year that comes close to the House bill that trimmed $60 billion in spending. Democrats say they are offering a $30-billion compromise, daring Republicans to oppose it.

Rubio called the current budget debate strictly small-time: "We're having all of this discussion about how we're going to spend money over the next six months, but the real debate needs to be about how we're going to spend money over the next 60 years, and that's that debt-limit debate," he said on the ABC program.

The telegenic senator, the son of Cuban exiles in Miami, has been hailed as a GOP rising star for some time -- in fact, Hannity introduced him as such Tuesday -- and his current media blitz is likely to escalate talk that 39-year-old would make an ideal vice-presidential nominee in 2012.

Rubio, however, may want to continue to keep his association with the tea party at a respectful distance. A CNN poll out Wednesday suggests that Americans are taking an increasingly dim view of the movement as it assumes a larger role in governing. According to the poll, 47% of Americans disapprove of the movement, up 10% from October of last year.

But then, President Obama has problems of his own. A new Quinnipiac poll released Wednesday contends that the president has hit an all-time low with the American public, with just 42% of those surveyed approving of his performance, down in that poll from 46% earlier this month.

The sluggish economy and the Libya crisis appear to be the culprits in dragging down the president's marks. More worrisome for the White House: An even 50% say Obama does not merit reelection.

james.oliphant@latimes.com

Twitter.com / @jamesoliphant

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