“I think that his votes were telling of where he was at, and he didn’t change his tune until after it made it into his hometown paper and papers across the state of Florida,” said state Rep. Darren Soto, an Orlando Democrat who represents part of the Interstate 4 corridor, where much of the state’s Puerto Rican community lives.
“Motivations are best shown when [people think] no one is paying attention,” Soto added.
Rubio voted against Aponte, who is of Puerto Rican descent, on the Foreign Relations Committee last month and against a procedural vote that would have allowed the Senate to vote on her confirmation Dec. 12. But he wrote to the State Department Dec. 17, notifying it that he “is no longer opposed to Ms. Aponte’s nomination to be U.S. Ambassador to El Salvador.”
Voters of Puerto Rican descent are a key voting constituency in Florida.
A spokesman for Rubio disputed the characterization that he is seeking to limit the potential political damage from his votes and said the junior Senator’s newfound support stems from an agreement struck with the White House to take a tougher stance on the election in Nicaragua, which Rubio believes was flawed.
“To drag ethnic politics into this ignores the realities,” the spokesman said. “He is in for five more years, he’s much more interested in getting things done than worrying about short-term politics.”
The Senate voted Dec. 12, 49-37, to cut off debate on the Aponte nomination, well short of the 60 votes needed to beat back a filibuster and invoke cloture. If 60 Senators had voted for the cloture motion, it would have cleared the way for the Senate to directly vote on the nomination, and only 51 would be needed for confirmation.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) reversed his vote at the last minute in a procedural ploy that will allow him to bring the nomination up again. However, Aponte’s recess appointment expires at the end of this year, so she will have to relinquish her duties before another vote can occur. The full Senate is not expected back in session until Jan. 23.
Democratic aides said Aponte remains a priority for Reid, and he hopes to bring her nomination up again next year once the 60 votes needed are secured. Rubio’s reversal alone is not enough to put Aponte over the top. However, Rubio has told Democratic leaders that he can deliver the votes needed to beat back the filibuster.
Rubio’s spokesman noted that, after agreeing with the State Department on Nicaragua, the Senator last week urged Reid to bring up the Aponte nomination again Friday because he said he had secured the seven votes needed to overcome the filibuster. Three Democrats supportive of Aponte did not vote Dec. 12.
“The only reason Aponte is coming home is because Sen. Reid refused to schedule a vote after Sen. Rubio had succeeded in changing administration policy and succeeded in securing the necessary Republican votes,” the spokesman said.
Senate Democrats contend Rubio is seeking a do-over vote after feeling the heat from his constituents. They also questioned the seven votes Rubio said he had wrangled.
“Senate procedure will only give us one more shot at Aponte’s nomination, so we cannot go based on a shaky whip list and we can’t be chasing shadows. Sen. Rubio voted against her, and it is his responsibility to get the votes on his side of the aisle,” a Senate Democratic leadership aide said. “If he really wanted to be helpful, he should use his influence with [Sen. Jim DeMint], his Senate mentor and top ally, and get him to lift the hold on Aponte.”
The main opposition to Aponte came from DeMint, a conservative who has embraced the tea party. The South Carolina Republican endorsed Rubio early on over the GOP establishment candidate, then-Gov. Charlie Crist, which helped Rubio win.
Aubrey Jewett, a political science professor at the University of Central Florida, said that Rubio’s vote against Aponte seemed to pit his allegiances to Hispanics against his desire to show his conservative bona fides.
“I really do think he was inclined to support the nominee, but he was feeling cross-pressured,” Jewett said.
“I believe that certainly played into it,” he added. “I believe Rubio is trying to support conservative leadership as he was supported by them early on in his race.” Rubio’s spokesman dismissed any ulterior motive for his change in position.
“From the outset, his reasons for opposing her were purely tied to his concerns with the administration’s policies in the Western Hemisphere,” the spokesman said.
In his letter to Wendy R. Sherman, undersecretary of State for political affairs, Rubio cited the “good faith efforts that you have made with regard to my concerns about the recent fraudulent elections in Nicaragua.”
According to Rubio’s spokesman, the Obama administration “agreed to have a stronger reaction to the recent failed elections in Nicaragua, including issuing a statement from the State Department.”
Rubio had previously raised concerns about anti-democratic currents in Nicaragua and, along with Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), introduced a resolution this month supporting the democratic aspirations of the Nicaraguan people and calling attention to the deterioration of constitutional order in the Central American country.
His letter said his opposition remains to the nominations of Roberta S. Jacobson to be assistant secretary of State for Western Hemisphere affairs and Adam E. Namm to be ambassador to Ecuador until the administration adequately scrutinizes its relaxed Cuba travel policy, which Rubio believes allows American tourism that props up a despotic regime.
Rubio’s change of heart also came after Democrats, including Soto on a Tuesday conference call organized by the Democratic National Committee — the day after the Senate’s Aponte vote — cast his opposition as a slight against a key constituency in Florida politics: Puerto Ricans in the I-4 corridor.
“He won a statewide election, he knows the growing strength of the Puerto Rican vote, he knows the volatility and swing nature of that vote,” said Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida in Tampa.
McManus said that the up-for-grabs nature of that electorate stems from the fact that most are from the Caribbean island in contrast to the Northeast U.S., which tends to be more liberal.
“It’s a community that really is very much insistent on interfacing with candidates,” McManus said. “I am sure that Rubio knows that the Republican Party is putting a lot of the burden of carrying the Hispanic vote [in the 2012 election] on his shoulders, and I think that the realization that was a growing and burgeoning portion of the electorate probably ended up turning him.”
Rubio’s switch also came as the issue made its way into Florida and Puerto Rican media.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.