By stepping back from the limelight, Rubio is acknowledging the limits of his own powers of persuasion as well as political realities. The abortion ban has little chance of clearing the Democrat-controlled Senate, while most House Republicans worry more about averting a conservative challenger in the 2014 mid-term election than about courting Hispanic voters in the 2016 presidential race.
But in a sign he's as much of a political juggernaut as ever, his team reported raising about $3 million in the past three months, exceeding his previous quarter even as opposition to immigration reform mounted.
"He's rightfully taking a hiatus from immigration while the House does its thing," said Al Cardenas, chairman of the American Conservative Union and a former head of the Florida Republican Party who supports the Senate bill. "He'll reappear and help get this done in the homestretch, and he'll be known as a key player in major legislation."
Rubio has pivoted to health care, just as the Obama administration decided to delay part of the health care law for one year, offering him new grist at an opportune time. He's declared he won't support any budget deal that does not defund Obamacare and address the mounting deficit. "I believe deeply we need to constrain spending because we are spending a lot more money than we are taking in, about $1 trillion a year more than we are taking in, borrowing about 40 cents of every dollar we spend in the federal government," he said on the Senate floor last week.
Rubio's ultimatum regarding Obamacare comes as another potential showdown on the federal budget looms in September. In the past, he's shown willingness for brinksmanship and voted against deals to raise the debt ceiling and avert the so-called fiscal cliff.
Rubio didn't endorse allowing undocumented workers to earn citizenship until January amid increasing calls for immigration reform from GOP leaders shaken by Republican nominee Mitt Romney's poor showing with Hispanic voters.
"He came to Congress talking about the debt, Social Security and Medicare, not about immigration, so it's natural for him to return to those issues," said American Action Forum president Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a top adviser to McCain's presidential campaign in 2008. Asked about the prospect of the health-care law's repeal, he said, "The House has voted to repeal it 37 times and it's still the law of the land, so it's a stretch. It's a negotiating position."
Though Rubio is a staunch social conservative who opposes gay marriage and abortion rights, he has invested more time and political capital in honing his image as a fiscal and military hawk. After the House passed a ban on abortion after 20 weeks, abortion opponents turned to the charismatic senator to take up the charge. Rubio was supportive but hasn't agreed to sponsor the bill.