Marco Rubio already is 10th in line when it comes to potential Republican presidential candidates for 2012, according to one newspaper ranking. Another says he's the most heralded GOP leader to arrive in D.C. in recent memory.
But Florida's newest senator-elect sought Monday to ignore most of the speculation with a low-key arrival at the U.S. Capitol for orientation for new lawmakers. He said he has ignored the hype, watching football all day Sunday.
Still, his first public appointment, an early morning visit with Democratic Florida Sen. Bill Nelson attracted a gaggle of observers.
The two talked about Florida.
``We discussed Florida's long tradition of senators working together,'' Rubio told reporters after the meeting. ``Florida has some important issues that it faces, whether it's an aircraft carier at Mayport or NASA and I look forward to a productive relationship on behalf of all Floridians.''
But one immediate disagreement with Nelson arose: Rubio favors a Republican ban on congressional earmarks, or pork barrel spending.
Nelson says there's a place for such spending and pointed to a project in Rubio's backyard: dredging the Port of Miami.
Rubio, who campaigned against earmarks and drew the enthusiastic support of tea party activists opposed to government spending, acknowledged Nelson's point.
``I want Florida to be fairly represented in this process,'' Rubio said.
``On the other hand, I think this country owes $13.5 trillion and growing and we have to deal with that very seriously. If we can't deal with the issue of earmarks, how are we going to deal with $13 trillion? It's not an easy issue but we'll confront it in a productive way.''
Taxpayers for Common Sense, a Washington-based watchdog group, said this fiscal year's federal budget contains nearly 9,500 congressional earmarks worth $15.9 billion.
Nelson said he told Rubio that if it wasn't for earmarking, the state might not be line for a nuclear aircraft carrier at Mayport Naval Station in Jacksonville.
``If I didn't attend to that appropriation, the Virginia delegation was going to eliminate a carrier coming into Florida,'' Nelson said.
And Nelson pointed out that ports in Miami and Jacksonville are counting on earmarks to help them dredge their channels to prepare for larger cargo ships coming through the Panama Canal in 2015.
``That is huge to Florida, to trade, to jobs, to economic activity that all of those big cargo ships coming through the Panama Canal come to Florida ports, intead of going to Savannah and Charlestown,'' Nelson said. ``Those are the hard realities when we talk of earmarks.''
Nelson said he and Rubio would have a ``continuing discussion'' on the issue, and he declined to say whether he thought Rubio's stance would hurt the state.
``The question is how do you stop the flimflam earmarks, while at the same time retaining your right to represent your people for your economy and jobs in your state, and that's what I'm trying to figure out, how we thread that needle,'' Nelson said.
Nelson told Rubio that nothing had caused such a stir outside his Senate office since last May when then-BP chairman Tony Hayward met with Nelson.
``The last time we had this many cameras here it was in the middle of the Gulf oil crisis,'' Nelson said.
Rubio, who claimed not to be following any of the hype his election has created, told reporters, ``All I know is the Miami Dolphins lost two quarterbacks yesterday. I may be getting a call a little later. We'll see.''
He and the other incoming senators-to-be later met with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who later in the day announced he would changed his position and would back a moratorium on earmarks.
But Rubio sought to escape the crush of reporters waiting for him outside McConnell's office, his eyes widening as he saw the scrum. He laughed, offered brief remarks and kept moving.
``All of us got elected to be responsible to the ideals that we ran on,'' Rubio said. ``We all have obligations to come up here and be held accountable. I think everybody understands that.''
He stood in contrast to fellow Republican sen-elect Rand Paul of Kentucky who spent time with reporters expounding on the federal budget deficit.
``Spending is out of control,'' Paul told reporters. ``The line that I repeated over and over again is that the public has decided that both sides are untrustworthy, Republicans and Democrats. To fulfill that trust to the public, what we need to do is obey rules. . . . We need rules up here that say we will balance our budget. We won't spend.''
Rubio returned from a personal trip to Israel with Miami billionaire businessman Norman Braman late Friday and arrived in Washington Sunday. Like the rest of the new senators, he's making due with temporary headquarters: a cubbyhole in the basement of a Senate office building.
Asked what Senate committees he was hoping to land, Rubio said he hadn't yet made any decisions.
``We're just starting that process now,'' he said. ``It's all moving fairly quickly.''