Much of the attention in recent days has focused on whether Sen. Marco Rubio will reverse course and run for re-election to his Senate seat, but he would much rather be discussing the mosquito-borne Zika virus.
The Florida Republican was inviting questions, to no avail, about Zika in the midst of a gaggle of reporters who were asking about his political future Thursday.
But would Rubio be so eager to push for full funding of the White House’s emergency $1.9 billion funding request for the virus if he were still running for president and courting cost-conscious conservatives?
Rubio says yes.
“Running for president means you have an obligation to keep our people safe,” he said in an interview. “Zika is a threat to the safety of our people, and it needs to be addressed. That’s a proper function of the federal government.”
Rubio said the issue came into focus during the campaign, as the risks and magnitude of the virus became better known. With multiple cases already reported in South America and Puerto Rico, Florida could well feel the impact soon.
“I always said it needed to be dealt with seriously,” he said. “The problem is we know a lot more about Zika today than we did three or four months ago.”
His support for the emergency dollars without offsetting spending cuts elsewhere puts Rubio at odds with such conservative groups as Heritage Action for America, at a time when many in the GOP would like him to change his mind and run for re-election to his Florida Senate seat.
“Zika is a significant and growing threat that lawmakers should take seriously,” Heritage Action said in a statement ahead of Senate floor votes, in which $1.1 billion of funding was approved. “However, it should not be used as an excuse to play politics, spend in excess of the budget caps, provide long term spending like enhanced Medicaid funding for Puerto Rico, or appropriate beyond what is needed before the beginning of the next fiscal year.”
Rubio said he would favor making other reductions in federal spending, but he is more concerned about getting the money quickly to conduct research ahead of the peak mosquito season in the southeastern United States.
“I will hold up my record of fiscal conservatism, not just in the last four years but throughout my time in public service. I will hold it up to anybody, anywhere in this process,” Rubio said.
The funding for the virus was left unresolved as lawmakers headed out of Washington, D.C., Thursday for a week-long recess. The next step is a House-Senate conference to reconcile differences between the $622 million package passed by the House and a broader, $1.1 billion measure that won bipartisan support in the Senate. Those negotiations will not be easy, however, as House Republicans are sure to push for offsets that will rile Senate Democrats.
For Rubio, who joined with Florida Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson to back the full $1.9 billion request from the Obama administration, the Zika situation counts as a true emergency. The virus can cause birth defects in babies, as well as other serious health disorders.
“These things that we need to fund need to be put in place before we have a problem, not after we have a problem, and so I think there needs to be a sense of urgency about it,” Rubio said. “When it comes to a public health crisis or the potential of a public health crisis, time is of the essence.”