WASHINGTON — Florida Sen. Marco Rubio — who hasn't joined a new Senate tea party caucus — told reporters Wednesday he's not even sure there's a need for one.
The Florida Republican — who became a darling of the tea party movement when he forced then-Gov. Charlie Crist out of the GOP Senate primary — said he still hasn't decided about joining any caucuses, but he plans to meet with tea party caucus members to "get their sense of what they want the caucus to be about."
Caucus founder Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., declined to stop to talk about Rubio's decision, telling reporters to call his office.
Rubio said he's not certain a Senate tea party caucus is a good idea.
Rubio told a group of Florida reporters Wednesday that the tea party's strength "comes from the grassroots."
"That it is not a political organization, it's not something run by politicians or people seeking higher office, but rather it is a movement of everyday citizens from all walks of life. That's the strength of the tea party: that it's not a political organization run by people out of Washington. My concern is a tea party caucus could intrude on that."
Rubio said he does plan to join the Republican Steering Committee, a conservative group that's been long established and meets to talk policy. He noted the group has staffers and has the "infrastructure in place to provide resources that those of us who believe in center-right limited government, free enterprise can rely on."
"The fundamental question I have — and there might be a good reason for it — is what's the difference between the tea party caucus and what already exists in the steering committee?" said Rubio, who first questioned the need for a separate tea party caucus during a CNN interview in July. Though he was embraced by the tea party and attended rallies, Rubio — a former Florida House speaker — sought during the campaign to portray himself as a bridge between the conservative movement and the Republican Party.
Some activists have taken note of Rubio's reluctance to join the caucus and expressed concern; others have said he'll be judged on how he votes.
Rubio cast his first vote Wednesday — on a resolution honoring Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., who was severely injured in a shooting earlier this month. He also announced that he's co-sponsoring his first bill, joining 33 other Senate Republicans to endorse South Carolina GOP Sen. Jim DeMint's effort to repeal the sweeping health care law passed last year. DeMint is one of three co-founders of the Tea Party Caucus, which meets for the first time Thursday.
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