Florida Sen. Marco Rubio sought to put a softer face on Republicans' small-government agenda, accusing President Barack Obama of spreading blame for his own administration's shortcomings.
Rubio used the official Republican response to Obama's State of the Union address Tuesday to advance the friendlier tone the GOP has sought to project after two straight drubbings in presidential elections.
A 41-year-old Cuban-American, Rubio referenced his own experience on matters such as immigration and entitlements. But he also used the spotlight to showcase well-known Republican positions: for a balanced budget amendment, for instance, and against stricter gun control that Obama wants.
"Mr. President, I don't oppose your plans because I want to protect the rich," Rubio said, in a line representative of Republicans' effort to shirk their caricature of a party favoring the wealthy. "I oppose your plans because I want to protect my neighbors."
A rising star within the Republican Party who is regarded as a top contender for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016, Rubio used much of his speech to lay into Obama with familiar criticisms. He accused the president of demonizing the GOP for its resistance to the administration's agenda.
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"There are valid reasons to be concerned about the president's plan to grow our government. But any time anyone opposes the president's agenda, he and his allies usually respond by falsely attacking their motives," Rubio said.
Rubio's moment in the spotlight was eagerly awaited by many Republicans, but at one point the spotlight seemed to affect him: Rubio ducked to his left, and almost out of camera range, to pick up a small bottle of water and take a gulp.
The unusual break in the speech was quickly mocked on Twitter. Within minutes of the speech, Poland Spring — the brand that Rubio reached for — was a trending topic.
The Florida senator was part of a bipartisan so-called Gang of Eight who last month presented a framework for immigration reform. It called for securing the U.S.-Mexican border before dealing with the nation's 11 million undocumented immigrants.
He sounded those themes again Tuesday and said: "First, we must follow through on the broken promises of the past to secure our borders and enforce our laws."
Rubio devoted a sizable portion of his address to attacking Obama's proposals on the federal budget. He said that he hoped the president would "abandon his obsession with raising taxes" and instead focus on economic growth.
The senator, who said that he himself had only just paid off $100,000 in student loans, accused Obama of blaming President George W. Bush for a rising federal debt when Obama "created more debt in four years than his predecessor did in eight."
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Rubio's speech sets the stage for this spring's fight over Democratic and Republican proposals to resolve the so-called sequester — automatic spending cuts to government programs set to take effect March 1.
The Obama administration has said that the cuts would hamper economic growth and harm national security.
Rubio accused Obama of seeking "devastating" cuts to the military and said that the answer to the nation's fiscal problems in stronger economic growth and creating "new taxpayers, not new taxes."
Rubio framed Washington fights over taxes and spending in personal terms. He spoke of retirees in his neighborhood who depend on Social Security, and how Medicare helped both his mother and his late father.
"I would never support any changes to Medicare that would hurt seniors like my mother," he said. "But anyone who is in favor of leaving Medicare exactly the way it is right now, is in favor of bankrupting it."
Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, giving a separate response address to a tea party group, suggested that not only should the automatic spending cuts standing — they should be greater.
"Washington acts in a way that your family never could," he said, according to prepared remarks. "They spend money they do not have, they borrow from future generations, and then they blame each other for never fixing the problem." If Congress can't pay its own bills and pass a budget, Paul said, "Sweep the place clean."