Sen. Marco Rubio on Tuesday said President Obama’s “obsession with raising taxes” and excessive spending is strangling the economy, and called for a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution while delivering the Republican response to the State of the Union.
Moments after Mr. Obama’s nationally televised defense of his vision of a broader federal government, Mr. Rubio took to the airwaves to tell listeners — in English and then Spanish — that the president’s fiscal approach is hurting the middle-class families living in the working-class Florida neighborhood he calls home.
“It will cost them their raises. It will cost them their benefits. It may even cost some of them their jobs. And it will hurt seniors because it does nothing to save Medicare and Social Security,” Mr. Rubio said.
“So, Mr. President, I don’t oppose your plans because I want to protect the rich. I oppose your plans because I want to protect my neighbors.”
Sen. Rand Paul weighed in minutes later on behalf of the Tea Party Express, blaming both parties for the nation’s fiscal woes, and saying that Congress must accept cuts to defense and domestic programs — including the impending $85 billion “sequester” — if it is serious about getting the nation’s fiscal house in order.
“Both parties have been guilty of spending too much, of protecting their sacred cows, of backroom deals in which everyone up here wins, but every taxpayer loses,” Mr. Paul said. “It is time for a new bipartisan consensus. It is time Democrats admit that not every dollar spent on domestic programs is sacred. And it is time Republicans realize that military spending is not immune to waste and fraud.”
Together, the two responses highlighted the lack of a single-party representative and underscored the continuing tension within the Republican Party, with tea party insurgents often unsatisfied with the direction charted by the GOP leaders.
The fissures have been on display on Capitol Hill, where House Speaker John A. Boehner stripped a few conservatives from powerful House committee assignments late last year.
Since then, some conservatives have butted heads with leadership over bills that increased taxes on the nation’s top earners, authorized $60 billion in emergency Superstorm Sandy funding and allowed the government to borrow as much money as it needs through mid-May without offsets elsewhere in the budget.
The latter move, however, hinged on Senate Democrats agreeing to pass a federal budget for the first time in four years — setting the table for another round of high-stakes fights in the coming weeks over the automatic “sequester” cuts to defense and domestic programs, the overall level of government spending and the soaring nation’s national debt, which is nearing $16.5 trillion.
Following the president’s address, Mr. Boehner said Mr. Obama had an opportunity to address the nation’s “spending problem” and “let it slip by.”
“Tonight, he offered them little more than more of the same ‘stimulus’ policies that have failed to fix our economy and put Americans back to work. We cannot grow the middle class and foster job creation by growing government and raising taxes,” the Ohio Republican said.
Rep. Steve Scalise, chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee, panned the speech, saying Mr. Obama “chose to retread the same failed agenda that has divided our country and handcuffed our economy throughout his entire presidency.”
In his address, Mr. Obama urged lawmakers to back an increase in the federal minimum wage and a pathway to citizenship for some illegal immigrants. The Democrat said deficit reduction should be achieved through a combination of spending cuts and higher taxes on the wealthy.
In his response, Mr. Rubio accused Mr. Obama of laying out “false choices,” including the notion that balancing the federal budget requires people to choose between “higher taxes or dramatic benefit cuts for those in need.”
“Instead we should grow our economy so that we create new taxpayers, not new taxes, and so our government can afford to help those who truly cannot help themselves,” he said.
He also said the “sequester” cut could be replaced with “responsible spending reforms,” rather than higher taxes, and that lawmakers must be wary of “unconstitutionally undermining the 2nd Amendment rights of law-abiding Americans” in the wake of the mass school shooting in Connecticut.
Mr. Rubio and Mr. Paul rode into office in 2010 as darlings of the tea party movement and both are considered potential contenders for the GOP presidential nomination in 2016.
For the most part, the two Republicans basically stuck with a familiar message of economic liberty, blaming Mr. Obama for adopting policies that have led to erratic job growth and a sluggish recovery from the recession the Democrat inherited from his predecessor George W. Bush, a Republican.
Mr. Rubio said lawmakers should push to reform the federal tax code and said the first step in balancing the federal budget is reducing the the costs of entitlement programs such as Medicare, which his parents have benefited from.
“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.”
He also called for lawmakers to embrace a “responsible, permanent solution” to the problem of illegal immigration — starting with following through “on the broken promises of the past to secure our borders and enforce our laws.”
Mr. Paul agreed, saying Republicans need to “embrace the immigrant who wants to come to America for a better future.”
“We must be the party who sees immigrants as assets, not liabilities. We must be the party that says, ‘If you want to work, if you want to become an American, we welcome you,’” Mr. Paul, Kentucky Republican said.
Some other Republicans, though, warned Tuesday that any effort to legalize people living here illegally cannot come at the expense of the American worker. “The president’s plan meets the desire of businesses for low-wage foreign workers while doing nothing to protect struggling American workers,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions, Alabama Republican and ranking member of the Senate budget committee.
The dueling GOP responses were the latest evidence of a party still looking to redefine itself after the November elections in which Republicans lost seats in both chambers of Congress and Mr. Obama captured a second term despite a sluggish economy and high unemployment.
Republicans are grappling over how to modernize their message to appeal to the nationwide electorate, in particular the Hispanic vote that Mr. Obama won by a whopping 71 percent to 27 percent margin over GOP nominee Mitt Romney.
As a result, the selection of Mr. Rubio to speak on behalf of the entire party carried some added symbolic weight.
Speaking on the Senate floor Tuesday, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, said that Mr. Rubio “embodies the American dream” and that “as the child of immigrants, he’s uniquely positioned to speak to the aspirations of the middle class.”
Mr. Rubio, one of two Republican Hispanics in the Senate, also has thrust himself into the middle of the immigration debate by embracing a five-page framework for comprehensive immigration reform that would grant most of the estimated 11 million-plus illegal immigrants in the country legal status “on Day One.”
The Rubio plan also would offer immigrants a chance to earn citizenship over time by paying fines, learning English and keeping out of trouble, while demanding that the federal government bolster border security and enforcement.