“I don’t know that ‘hate’ is the right word,” Rubio said in an interview. “I’m frustrated.”
This year, as Rubio runs for president, he has cast the Senate — the very place that cemented him as a national politician — as a place he’s given up on, after less than one term. It’s too slow. Too rule-bound. So Rubio, 44, has decided not to run for his seat again. It’s the White House or bust.
“That’s why I’m missing votes. Because I am leaving the Senate. I am not running for reelection,” Rubio said in the last Republican debate, after Donald Trump had mocked him for his unusual number of absences during Senate votes.
Five years ago, Rubio arrived with a potential that thrilled Republicans. He was young, ambitious, charismatic, fluent in English and Spanish, and beloved by the establishment and the tea party.
But Rubio had arrived at one of the least ambitious moments in Senate history and saw many of his ideas fizzle. Democrats killed his debt-cutting plans. Republicans killed his immigration reform. The two parties actually came together to kill his AGREE Act, a small-bore, hands-across-the-aisle bill that Rubio had designed just to get a win on something.
Now, he’s done. “He hates it,” a longtime friend from Florida said, speaking anonymously to say what Rubio would not.
Which makes for an odd campaign message.
Rubio must convince voters that his decision to leave the Senate — giving up the power he already has — is actually a mark of character, a sign that he is too dedicated to public service to stay.
Rubio is not a quitter, the argument goes.
In fact, that’s precisely why he’s quitting this place.
“He wouldn’t be doing what he’s doing now if he were a quitter,” said Norman Braman, a Florida auto dealer and one of Rubio’s longtime donors.
Last week was — by Rubio’s standards — a very busy week in the Senate.
On Tuesday, he cast a vote, his first in 26 days. He gave a floor speech, his first in 41 days. In the speech, he asked the Senate to pass a bill that would give Department of Veterans Affairs leaders more power to remove poor-performing employees. But it didn’t happen. To pass something so suddenly, Senate rules required that every single senator agree. A Democrat, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (Conn.), objected that Rubio’s bill did not allow workers due process.
“Unfortunately, we will not be able to move forward on this today, it appears,” Rubio said, as his gambit failed. With that, he was done for the week, missing the next three votes.
Impatience had been a hallmark of Rubio’s career, for good and ill. Even in his first elected office, as a young city commissioner in West Miami, Rubio had been exasperated by how slowly his colleagues worked.
In this case, his decision to give up his Senate seat in 2016 was, in some ways, forced upon him.
The state’s election filing deadlines might have allowed him to test the presidential waters and then — if he failed — drop out and run for reelection as a backup plan. But even that Plan B was far from a sure thing. Rubio would be facing an expensive campaign in a competitive state, having already made clear that the Senate race was his second choice.
On the campaign trail, Rubio comes under attack from rivals who say he’s become an absentee federal employee. Former Florida governor Jeb Bush, in a less-than-subtle knock on his former homestate ally, has said senators who miss work should have their pay docked.
“It’s just, kind of, like, dude, you know, either drop out or do something,” Bush’s son, Jeb Bush Jr., told New York University College Republicans earlier this month, in comments first reported by Politico Florida. The junior Bush, a Floridian, cast himself as an aggrieved constituent. “We’re paying you to do something, it ain’t run for president.”
Rubio waves off the criticism, saying his rejection of the Senate is all about finding a better way to serve all Americans.
“I’m not missing votes because I’m on vacation,” he told CNN on Sunday. “I’m running for president so that the votes they take in the Senate are actually meaningful again.”
Asked about his absences recently by Matt Lauer on NBC’s “Today” Show, Rubio said: “My ambitions aren’t for me. My ambitions are for the country, and Florida.” If he is elected to the White House, he added, “we can begin to fix some of these issues that I’ve been so frustrated we’ve been unable to address during my time in the Senate.”
In an interview with The Post, Rubio was asked to go further. What if he didn’t see an opportunity for himself in the presidential race? Would he run for reelection, if the Senate was all he had?
“I don’t know,” Rubio said.
To understand how Rubio got to this point, The Post interviewed him, his friends and his staffers, and examined his nearly five-year-old Senate record — votes, speeches, legislation and committee hearings.