Rubio, the Florida Republican who chairs the Senate Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship, has called Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Small Business Administration Administrator Jovita Carranza to testify about the Paycheck Protection Program. Rubio played a lead role in creating the program as part of the Cares Act in March, and has seen it through two chaotic months.
This is not the kind of role Rubio is well-known for playing. He raised more than $50 million during his 2016 presidential run and drew big rallies on the campaign trail, but in recent weeks he has resorted to posting short video clips about the PPP on Twitter that resembled vlogs more than official Senate correspondence.
Sometimes wearing a T-shirt and baseball cap, Rubio spoke from the cuff, delving into the nuance of the rules, and helping iron out the program’s many problems along the way, as small businesses initially struggled to access loans and large banks were slow to issue them.
Rubio was quick to call out the Small Business Administration when he felt it wasn’t being sufficiently transparent, while pushing back on criticism of the PPP that he felt was unjustified, such as the overwhelming focus on big companies that got loans when that constituted a small percentage of the more than $500 billion disbursed.
Now, in the wake of Friday’s surprisingly positive jobs report, the PPP is being widely hailed as one of the most successful pieces of the congressional response to the economic crisis brought on by the coronavirus. And Rubio has rocketed into newfound status as one of the Senate’s standout legislators, having steered the previously inconspicuous panel that oversees small businesses into the center of the historic recovery effort.
At the same time, Rubio was elevated last month to become acting chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, after the previous chairman, Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), had to relinquish the position because of a federal investigation of his stock trades.
“I didn’t want there to be a pandemic, obviously. I mean, I’d prefer to never have had to do this, because that means we didn’t have this pandemic,” Rubio said in an interview. “But I do think there is a sense of it that feels rewarding. ... If the purpose of being a public servant is to make a difference I’ve certainly been given that opportunity.”
For the 49-year-old Rubio, who was first elected in 2010 after serving as state House speaker in Florida, it could be the beginning of a full reboot. During his failed White House run in 2016, Rubio vowed repeatedly he would not be seeking reelection to the Senate, declaring that “we’re not going to fix America with senators." After losing his home state to Donald Trump in the presidential primary, Rubio changed his mind and ran for reelection after all. And now Rubio is embracing the Senate and his role in the institution he once disdained, where he’s discovered he can, in fact, get things done.
“The first couple years I think he was frustrated that he could vote and give big speeches occasionally, but not really effectuate change,” said Cesar Conda, Rubio’s first chief of staff in the Senate. “Marco is an action-oriented guy and I think that now that he’s in the majority, chairman of two committees, now he’s in his element."
As much as Mnuchin and Carranza, Rubio will also be in the spotlight on Wednesday. Rubio and the committee’s top Democrat, Sen. Ben Cardin (Md.), have numerous questions for the Trump administration officials, ranging from the reasons behind the Paycheck Protection Program’s rocky rollout, to the explanations for the drop in demand for more than $100 billion that’s left in the program, to what comes next for the PPP. But Rubio’s stature will be different from past hearings, as he will be weighing in on a program that he played a central role in creating and not scrutinizing other lawmakers’ legacies.
Setting up the program has been a challenge. There have been numerous controversies and scandals. And some of his Republican colleagues, including fellow GOP Sen. Rick Scott of Florida, have blasted the program as wasteful and imperfect. Rubio acknowledges the program has flaws but he said they were rushing its assembly as they tried to address the economic free-fall in March, and unlike with other parts of the Cares Act creating an entirely new initiative from scratch.
“I mean, this thing just didn’t exist,” Rubio said. “On April 3rd, when the first PPP loan was made, no one on the planet had ever applied for one, processed one, approved one, or made one. So that when you add it all up I don’t think there’s any question that it’s by far the most successful part of the [Cares Act].”
“We focused a lot on the technical glitches,” Rubio added. “But there is no doubt in my mind that there are people by the millions who kept their jobs and paychecks and there are businesses by the hundreds of thousands that would not today be viable had it not been for the program.”
The SBA is one of the smallest agencies in government and was initially overwhelmed by implementing the PPP while also distributing increased funding for the preexisting Economic Injury Disaster Loan program, or EIDL. Carranza said in an interview that the experience has oriented the agency better toward helping small businesses going forward.
“Sen. Rubio and Sen. Cardin, because of the architecture of this PPP program and the support for the EIDL, SBA is now better prepared to mobilize the entire agency to small business economic recovery,” Carranza said.
Rubio remains one of the younger members of the Senate. He has been a foreign policy hawk, tried to rework some social welfare programs, and also worked extensively on immigration reform in 2013, when he helped shepherd a comprehensive overhaul bill through the Senate. It was at the height of that effort that Rubio was tapped to deliver the GOP response to President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address, creating a viral moment when he interrupted his own speech to grab a plastic bottle of water and chug an awkward drink. It created an impression that perhaps he wasn’t quite ready for the spotlight.
The immigration bill subsequently stalled in the House and Rubio disavowed it as he turned his attention to a potential run for president and began to court a GOP base that disdained what they viewed as amnesty. Rubio has at times appeared to perform a balancing act in his approach to minority communities, expressing sympathy and concern for those now protesting the death of George Floyd even as he stridently criticizes unrest that he claims is fomented in part by antifa.
After clashing savagely during the presidential primary, Rubio now largely refrains from criticizing President Trump, sidestepping questions on whatever is the latest controversy. On Tuesday, for example, Rubio told CNN he hadn’t seen Trump’s tweet suggesting a 75-year-old man shoved over by police in Buffalo was part of some kind of conspiracy.
Until a few months ago, Rubio’s work on small-business issues received little attention, even though small business lobbyists say they’ve viewed him as a wiling partner on their issues. Rubio and Cardin have forged a bipartisan approach heading the committee, and as the coronavirus economic crisis loomed they began working together to develop a response that would ultimately become the PPP, Cardin said.
“Almost immediately we had a meeting of the minds that we wanted to have money go out quickly, with minimal underwriting,” Cardin said. They formed a working group with Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), and the four worked collegially to develop the Paycheck Protection Program even as partisan fights raged for days around other portions of the Cares Act.
“I was amazed at how it just caught on and it became the centerpiece of basically the Cares Act, it really became the driving force,” Cardin said.
Collins said she and the others “were deeply worried that if Congress didn’t act quickly, hundreds of thousands of American small businesses would close their doors forever.” Rubio “cares greatly for American small businesses and their employees," Collins said.
For Rubio, his new prominence in the Senate could one day launch him toward another White House bid. But this time he would be running not as the brash young senator in a hurry, the GOP’s answer to Obama, but as a seasoned veteran, architect of one of the most important jobs programs of this century and the top oversight chair of America’s spy network. He will no longer be, as Trump once belittled him, “Liddle Marco.”
“I’ve obviously been interested in running for president because I ran in the past,” Rubio said. “But, you know, I don’t know how I’m going to feel two, three years down the road, or longer, when the moment to make those kinds of decisions arrives.”