After relentlessly defending for months the Senate's ambitious overhaul of the nation's immigration laws, Sen. Marco Rubio didn't respond when House GOP leaders last week trashed it as a "flawed … massive, Obama-care like bill."
The Florida Republican's office, which churned out countless press releases touting his interviews and speeches about the legislation, hasn't said a word about immigration since the Senate passed the bill on June 27.
The silence is a sign that, at least publicly, Rubio won't try to dissuade the House from a piecemeal approach that excludes a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants.
Instead, Rubio is turning to the safer, more-conservative-friendly issues he campaigned on in 2010—President Obama's health care law, federal spending, the deficit—but with less support from Republicans than before, according to public polls. He's put off abortion opponents clamoring for him to spearhead a controversial ban after 20 weeks of pregnancy and staying put while potential rivals in 2016 jockey in the early-primary states.
In the past week, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., addressed Republican activists in Nevada, while Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, announced plans to headline a fundraiser in New Hampshire on Aug. 23. (Both Paul and Cruz voted against the immigration bill.) Rubio hasn't been to a presidential stomping ground outside of Florida since November, when he visited Iowa.
By stepping back from the limelight, Rubio is acknowledging the limits of his own powers of persuasion as well as political realities. The abortion ban has little chance of clearing the Democrat-controlled Senate, while most House Republicans worry more about averting a conservative challenger in the 2014 midterm election than about courting Hispanic voters in the 2016 presidential race.
But in a sign he's as much of a political juggernaut as ever, his team reported raising about $3 million in the past three months, exceeding his previous quarter even as opposition to immigration reform mounted.
"He's rightfully taking a hiatus from immigration while the House does its thing," said Al Cardenas, chairman of the American Conservative Union and a former head of the Florida Republican Party who supports the Senate bill. "He'll reappear and help get this done in the homestretch, and he'll be known as a key player in major legislation."
Rubio has pivoted to health care, just as the Obama administration decided to delay part of the health care law for one year, offering him new grist at an opportune time. He's declared he won't support any budget deal that does not defund Obamacare and address the mounting deficit. "I believe deeply we need to constrain spending because we are spending a lot more money than we are taking in, about $1 trillion a year more than we are taking in, borrowing about 40 cents of every dollar we spend in the federal government," he said on the Senate floor last week.
The senator's ultimatum regarding Obamacare comes as another potential showdown on the federal budget looms in September. In the past, he's shown willingness for brinksmanship and voted against deals to raise the debt ceiling and avert the so-called fiscal cliff.
Rubio didn't endorse allowing undocumented workers to earn citizenship until January amid increasing calls for immigration reform from GOP leaders shaken by presidential nominee Mitt Romney's poor showing with Hispanic voters.
"He came to Congress talking about the debt, Social Security, and Medicare, not about immigration, so it's natural for him to return to those issues," said American Action Forum president Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a top adviser to Republican Sen. John McCain's presidential campaign in 2008. Asked about the prospect of the health care law's repeal, he said, "The House has voted to repeal it 37 times and it's still the law of the land, so it's a stretch. It's a negotiating position."
Although Rubio is a staunch social conservative who opposes gay marriage and abortion rights, he has invested more time and political capital in honing his image as a fiscal and military hawk. After the House passed a ban on abortion after 20 weeks, abortion opponents turned to the charismatic senator to take up the charge. Rubio was supportive but hasn't agreed to sponsor the bill.
One hitch is that one of Rubio's Republican colleagues, Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, has already endorsed a more limited bill that would ban abortions more than 20 weeks from conception in the District of Columbia.
"The pro-life movement sees Senator Rubio as one of the most articulate and powerful spokesmen in this fight and someone who has been active on this issue for a long time," said Mallory Quigley, a spokeswoman for the antiabortion Susan B. Anthony List. "One thing we know he is and will continue to be is meticulous in planning. His office is working on determining the best language for his Senate colleagues to coalesce around."
Rubio's allies maintain they aren't worried about a dip in the polls here or there. Who knows if immigration will be a top issue in 2016, anyway?
"Marco Rubio has demonstrated a willingness to take a risk to do something important for the country," said his pollster, Whit Ayres. "Ultimately politicians who do what they think is best for the country get credit for being leaders. In the great scheme of things it will be one of number of things he's done."