Moderate Marco? Not quite, but Rubio has history of bipartisanship

U.S. Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), and Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) listen during a news conference on immigration reform April 18, 2013, on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.
U.S. Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), and Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) listen during a news conference on immigration reform April 18, 2013, on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. Getty Images

Marco Rubio came into the U.S. Senate in 2011 as a tea party darling and hero to the Republican right wing.

Since then, he has mostly lived up to his reputation, with ideological assessments by some advocates that rank him among the most conservative in the Senate.

But on some other measures, the presidential candidate from West Miami, Fla., is looking downright . . . bipartisan.

Consider the percentage of bills a senator joined that were introduced by a member of the opposition. On that measure, Rubio ranked No. 11 in the 2013-14 Congress, according to GovTrack, a website designed to help the public monitor Congress.

Rubio’s tally included bills sponsored by several Democratic senators; among them: legislation from Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts on the disabled and on veterans, from Ron Wyden of Oregon on Internet taxation, and from Wyden and Al Franken of Minnesota on college costs. Rubio also signed onto a veterans’ health care bill from independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

There were others, as well.

He co-sponsored more pieces of legislation by Democratic Sens. Robert Menendez of New Jersey – 24 bills and resolutions – and Bill Nelson of Florida – nine – than by some fellow conservative stars. Among name-brand Republican colleagues, for example, he signed onto six pieces of legislation by Ted Cruz of Texas and four by Rand Paul of Kentucky. Both are also seeking the presidency.

In fact, of all the bills and resolutions Rubio signed onto in the previous Congress, Democrats and a couple of independents sponsored nearly half – 46 percent – of them.

According to those who have worked with him or followed his career, Rubio’s legislative record is deep in the red, but not purely partisan. He’s worked consistently with Menendez, a fellow Cuban-American senator who shares Rubio’s views on some foreign policy issues, and Nelson, the three-term senator from Orlando, Fla., who is as far left on some ideological scales as Rubio is on the right.

On the most recent ideological ratings from the American Conservative Union, Rubio scored a 96, tied for fourth (three senators shared 100s). Nelson scored zero.

But policy divides don’t always dictate politics.

“I can tell you that Rubio is easy to work with,” Nelson told McClatchy.

There are tasks having to do with Florida, such as the selection of judges, that the public doesn’t see, but that still benefit from the state’s senators enjoying a good working relationship. Nelson and Rubio do.

“He gets pulled in the opposite direction by staff, but that’s not anything unique just to his staff. That happens to every Senate staff,” Nelson said. “I also like him personally very much – and I think he knows that. That’s probably another reason that the two of us get along so well.”

I can tell you that although I didn’t agree with a good number of his policies – perhaps most of them – he comported himself very well. He embraced debate and disagreement. . . . I think he liked the collegial aspects of the Legislature, even if your colleagues were of another party.

Dan Gelber, former Democratic leader of the Florida House

Getting along well with others was also cited by another of Rubio’s Democratic opponents – this one from his time in the Florida House of Representatives, where Rubio held the top post as speaker before moving on to the U.S. Senate.

Dan Gelber, a Miami lawyer, was the Democratic leader in the Florida House while Rubio was speaker and the top Republican. The two agreed on little, but still collaborated regularly.

“While I think he is a true conservative, I don’t think he is a reflexive partisan,” Gelber said. “He didn’t have an objection to working with the other side simply because they were the other side. . . . I never had that sense with him, and in fact I felt sometimes that if he could do it, he would prefer to have done something collaboratively.”

“To put it bluntly, he wasn’t a jerk,” Gelber added. “He had his views, we had ours. He respected our right to engage the debate, and we worked together even when we disagreed. Which was often.”

McClatchy reviewed data from the most recent two-year session of Congress – 2013-14 – on GovTrack.us, as well as the official Congress.gov website.

The data show that Rubio both signed onto bills sponsored by members of the opposition and attracted those members to his own bills.

On a separate measure of bipartisanship – bringing folks from across the aisle to a legislator’s own bill – Rubio was in the lower half of the pack: According to GovTrack, 26 percent of Rubio’s bills and resolutions had both a Democrat and a Republican on board. He ranked No. 56 on that measure out of 90 senators with enough legislation to rank.

One of the bills included in that tally was the Girls Count Act, first introduced by Rubio and Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat from New Hampshire, in 2014. The bill stalled that year but was reintroduced this Congress and went on to be passed and signed into law.

The bill, which had more Democratic than Republican co-sponsors, will direct current U.S. foreign aid to support the rights of women and girls in developing countries by working to establish birth registries in their countries.

Rubio is the sort who is willing to compromise. He’s willing to take half a loaf, when a lot of people in politics demand at least three-quarters of it – if not the whole loaf.

Larry Sabato, University of Virginia

Of his three Senate GOP colleagues also running for president, Paul and Cruz were in the single digits on that bipartisanship measure from GovTrack, ranking near the bottom of all senators. A third, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, was near the top of the list.

Much of the public’s impression of Rubio comes from his 2010 entrance on the national stage, when he won important tea party support in his quest for a Senate seat. His 2013 attempt to help push through bipartisan immigration legislation backfired, sullying his image with many tea partiers, but the impression the public at large had of him stuck.

“Even though he has a public image as a tea party Republican, his voting record isn’t as conservative as other leading Republicans,” said Darrell West, vice president of governance studies at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank. “This suggests that he would be pragmatic in the White House and try to get things done, as opposed to posturing and criticizing the opposition all the time.”

As GOP contenders head into a series of caucuses and primaries before an increasingly conservative and partisan electorate, Rubio’s willingness to compromise could backfire, as it did on immigration.

But there are still plenty of Republican voters who want that – maybe 30 percent of the Republican primary electorate, according to Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.

“When you’ve got 17 candidates running, a 30 percent bloc is pretty big,” he said. “Rubio is the sort who is willing to compromise. He’s willing to take half a loaf, when a lot of people in politics demand at least three-quarters of it – if not the whole loaf.”