Apr 06 2020
Marco Rubio finds his next act
By Burgess Everett, Marianne LeVine
April 4, 2020
Marco Rubio’s political fortunes have gyrated frequently during his 10 years in national politics. But the coronavirus outbreak may have brought the Florida GOP senator to his most critical moment yet.
As chairman of the usually sleepy Small Business Committee, Rubio has a key position in the country’s response and recovery from the pandemic. His panel’s $377 billion lifeline for small businesses is a linchpin of Congress’ $2 trillion economic rescue package, and Rubio’s efforts are winning praise from Republicans and Democrats alike even as implementation of the program remains deeply uncertain.
Now, Rubio’s emergence as a leading responder to the outbreak of the novel coronavirus is fueling talk among his colleagues that he, like a handful of prominent Senate Republicans, is keeping an eye on where his party goes in 2024, when Trump is no longer the GOP’s standard-bearer.
“Sen. Rubio certainly has his ambition. There’s no question about that,” said Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin, the top Democrat on the Small Business Committee. “But I think his motivation on the small business was genuine to the problems of businesses in his community, around the country.”
It’s a question Rubio addresses openly. Yet the conservative Cuban American who once vowed to quit the Senate after one term seems to finally be enjoying his time on Capitol Hill. He said his second term “has been much more fruitful and fulfilling than my first,” particularly as his influence increases as a committee chairman in the Senate majority.
“Am I interested in potentially running for president one day? Sure, absolutely, because I ran once before. I don’t know if I will,” he said in the interview. “I don’t know what the world is going to look like in four, five, six years or what my life is going to look like.”
What was in front of him in mid-March was what he saw as a flawed “Phase Two” coronavirus-response bill from the House that put too much of the onus on small businesses to provide paid leave to workers, despite Democrats wanting something even more ambitious. As he and Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) pored over the legislation during a mid-March weekend, Rubio and his colleagues decided the Senate would need to stay in session and produce its own sweeping response to the virus.
Rubio said his committee began drafting small business language in February, though it had no concept then of the scale of its mission. Still, he credits that groundwork with allowing the Senate to get its bill together quickly enough to pass it in the teeth of the crisis the following month.
For now, amid the coronavirus crisis, Rubio finds himself in a potent spot in part because of his deferential attitude to more senior senators. When former Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) announced his plans to retire in 2018, Rubio quickly endorsed Sen. Jim Risch (R-Idaho) to lead the influential panel rather than launch a potentially bitter intraparty challenge. Instead, he took the Small Business Committee, a relative backwater in the Senate.
And though that’s a panel generally free of the rancor that defines the polarized Senate, even there Rubio has flashed his brand of sharp-elbowed politics. He postponed what should have been a popular bipartisan small business bill in 2019 after Democrats resisted deregulation efforts.
But the novel coronavirus has brought out a more sober side of the onetime tea party upstart. Rubio was one of the first senators to publicly acknowledge the chamber needed to stay in Washington until it passed a rescue package because coming back might not be an option any time soon.
“We really don't have time to argue about this, we gotta act because we don’t know how much longer we can meet,” Rubio recalled thinking. “We all realized that we were one outbreak from the Senate closing down and not being able to pass this bill.”