Rubio’s tone was confident as he delivered the remarks. But about halfway through, he appeared to suffer a bout of dry mouth and, in a made-for-Twitter moment, twice wiped his lips and then awkwardly paused, reaching far off camera for a bottle of water.
Several of Rubio’s fellow Republicans in Congress said they found Obama’s tone on Tuesday more bipartisan than in the inaugural address a few weeks ago, suggesting that the president offered them possible bipartisan solutions on tax reform, trade and energy.
But most Republicans rebuffed Obama’s call for legislation to implement universal preschool and a $9-an-hour minimum wage, saying such programs would be overly expensive. “Another recipe for big government,” said Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn (Tex.).
“It sounded like a Christmas list to me,” Sen. Tim Scott (S.C.) said. “The question is, how do you pay for [preschool] in every state, how do you pay for $9 an hour?”
Rubio used his speech to offer new conservative ideas on education, part of the GOP’s effort to expand the party’s focus beyond debt and deficits — what Jindal dismissively referred to recently as an “obsession with zeroes.”
The senator called for expanding private choices for primary school children and new financial aid for nontraditional college and graduate school students. He said that additional federal lands should be opened to energy exploration and that Congress should overhaul the tax code, not to raise new revenue — as Obama seeks — but to lower rates.
Rubio has shifted to the party’s forefront in recent weeks because of his central role in a bipartisan group of eight senators working on a proposal to overhaul the nation’s immigration laws.
But he mentioned that issue only briefly, calling for a “responsible, permanent solution to the problem of those who are here illegally” — but insisting first on new enforcement and border security.
And he offered a terse response to Obama’s emotional call for new gun-control measures. “We must effectively deal with the rise of violence in our country,” the senator said, declaring all Americans “heartbroken” over the recent Newtown, Conn., school shooting. “But,” he added, “unconstitutionally undermining the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding Americans is not the way to do it.”
In a stark reminder of the deep divisions within a rebuilding Republican Party, Rubio’s official GOP response was followed by a speech by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) sponsored by the Tea Party Express, a conservative political action committee.
It was the third year in a row in which a tea party group has sponsored a State of the Union response.
The tea party response served as a special rebuke because it put Paul, another possible 2016 contender, head to head with Rubio, who ran in 2010 with strong tea party support.
In his speech, Paul took both parties to task for spending too much and called on Congress to allow the $85 billion in automatic spending cuts set to take effect March 1 to go ahead, despite a hit to the Pentagon that has many Republicans worried.
“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,” Paul said.
But, like Rubio, he said the Republican Party must be more welcoming to immigrants who come to the United States to work and want to become American citizens.
Paul Kane contributed to this report.