Rubio defends surveillance, predicts Senate will pass immigration bill

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. AP

Sen. Marco Rubio on Tuesday defended the government’s aggressive surveillance of phone records and Internet use, saying the program has saved lives and Congress has sufficient oversight to prevent abuses.

Rubio, a Florida Republican and possible 2016 presidential candidate, said he couldn’t disclose everything he knows about the high-tech domestic spying by the National Security Agency because of restrictions placed on him as a member of the Senate intelligence committee.

“We do review these programs,” Rubio told the annual convention of the American Society of News Editors. “They are part of congressional oversight. I also want to emphasize how important these programs are to our national security. They have saved American lives. They are saving American lives now.”

Rubio’s support for the surveillance is significant on several fronts. The first-term senator is a frequent critic of President Barack Obama, who’s come under fire in recent weeks for authorizing an initiative that some Americans view as Big Government overreach.

Rubio is a rising Republican star with the potential to someday occupy the same seat as Obama, who as a senator was critical of domestic surveillance efforts by President George W. Bush. As president, Obama now backs domestic spying on the same grounds of national security that Bush cited, and on a scale that some critics say is more excessive.

Rubio defended the surveillance to hundreds of top editors from around the country, many of whom have criticized Obama for the Justice Department’s targeting of Associated Press and Fox News reporters in a bid to learn the government sources of leaks of classified information.

Asked whether he intends to run for president in 2016, Rubio responded, “I really don’t think about that.” The son of Cuban refugees and former speaker of the Florida House of Representatives said he must first decide whether to seek Senate re-election next year.

Turning to what has become his signature issue, Rubio said the Senate’s vote Monday to end debate on an amendment to spend $40 billion over a decade to fortify the country’s southern borders makes it more likely the upper chamber will pass a bipartisan immigration overhaul that he and seven other senators have crafted.

Rubio acknowledged that the legislation, which would provide a path to citizenship for 11 million illegal immigrants, faces a stiffer challenge in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, where many lawmakers from his party oppose it.

He also recognized that the Republican Party is split between members who want to reach out to Hispanic voters and activists who view any leniency for undocumented workers as rewarding people who broke the law.

But the senator said the key reason to reform “a broken immigration system” should not be based on politics, but instead on affirming the central role that those born in foreign lands have played in American history.

“Somehow all these people from all these different places created the greatest nation the world has ever known,” Rubio said. “Our laws have to be respected, and as a sovereign nation we have the right to protect our borders, but we can never relinquish the heritage of who we are as a people and as a nation.”

In a controversial stance that could displease some of his backers in Florida and beyond, Rubio said Congress should re-examine a law that enables Cuban refugees to obtain green cards and become American citizens more quickly than immigrants from other countries.

Thanks to loosened limits on travel to Cuba, Rubio said some newcomers from the Caribbean island nation abuse the process by obtaining a green card in the United States, but then making a dozen or more trips a year to Cuba.

CORRECTION: In an earlier version, the name of the American Society of News Editors in the third paragraph was incorrect.

Related stories from McClatchy DC