A chipper talk radio host in New Hampshire had a tired sounding Sen. Marco Rubio on the phone.
“How have you been, sir?”
“I’ve been busy.”
“You’ve been very busy in the Senate. ... You’re joining us from Washington this morning?”
“No, I’m in New York City.”
It was a Thursday in June, and Rubio, who was in New York to appear on Fox News, finished the day in Connecticut, raising money and giving a speech.
As he campaigns for president, the Florida Republican is increasingly skipping his elected duty in Washington.
In July alone, he missed more than half the Senate votes. In June, Rubio missed 67 percent of votes, including taking an entire week off for fundraising in California and to attend a candidate gathering in Utah.
In April, a month in which he missed 21 percent of votes, Rubio went to the floor to bemoan how he could not get traction on amendments aimed at the Iran nuclear accord. “If you don’t want to vote on things,” he said, voice rising, “don’t run for the Senate.”
All told, Rubio has the worst missed vote record of any current senator.
This year he has missed votes on the Keystone pipeline, the Export-Import Bank and trade, though in some cases he has been able to vote on procedural matters or the final passage. Rubio’s team notes that he hasn’t skipped a vote where he would have changed the outcome.
His truancy — similar to Sen. Barack Obama when he began to run for president in 2007 — is attracting attention in Washington and among campaign rivals. Now Rubio runs the risk of appearing checked out to the voters who put him on the national stage and whose support he would need in Florida’s primary next March.
“I don’t get to take time off from my current job to interview for another job and get paid for it,” said Tim Curtis, a tea party leader in Tampa. “You asked for the job to represent us; do your job. Everyday folks may accept this as part of the deal, but that’s where we are today because we don’t hold our elected officials accountable.”
On a deeper level, the issue hints at the pattern of a career politician driven more by ambition than a desire to do the unglamorous and time-consuming work of legislating.
EXCEEDS MEDIAN RATE
Since he joined the Senate in January 2011, Rubio has missed nearly 11 percent of votes, far exceeding the median 1.6 percent rate for the lifetimes of current senators.
This year, Rubio has missed 76 of 262 votes, or 29 percent. Fifty-one of those missed votes have come after April 13, when he announced he was running for president.
Beyond action on the Senate floor, Rubio has been absent for numerous hearings and meetings, including classified briefings related to the Iran nuclear deal and on the threat of the Islamic State. At the same time, he has put foreign policy experience at the forefront of his presidential campaign.
Take Wednesday. Rubio missed a closed-door session for all senators on the Iran nuclear deal. He also skipped a Foreign Relations hearing on the implications of the deal for the Middle East and a private briefing with the International Atomic Energy Agency director.
Rubio was in Cleveland for a campaign rally ahead of Thursday’s first GOP debate.
Rubio, 44, has expressed frustration with the workings of the Senate and says he will not seek reelection if his presidential bid fades, allowing him to more intently focus beyond Florida.
His poll numbers in early nominating states have stagnated, but Rubio, who had a strong performance in the debate, remains a top candidate for the nomination and has excited people across the country as a fresh face teeming with ideas to confront the country’s problems.
But it is taking a toll on his work in Washington.
While Rubio talks of big ideas on the trail, he hasn’t followed through on some of them in Washington. For example, he has yet to produced a bill to overhaul the earned-income tax credit with a “wage enhancement,” an idea he proposed in January 2014 amid considerable hype. Nor has he tried to work a major tax overhaul he outlined.
‘VERY TOUGH THING’
Fortunately for Rubio, the Senate on Thursday began a five-week recess. But the truancy stands to increase heading into the fall and next year’s early nominating contests.
“It’s tough to run as a senator,” said Sen. Orrin Hatch, a veteran Republican from Utah who ran for president in 2000. “As it gets more and more difficult and more and more competitive, it becomes more and more of a problem.”
“There’s an obligation to vote, an obligation to be in your committees,” Hatch added. “But when you are running for president people realize there has to be some reasonable approach to both voting and being in attendance. It’s a very tough thing.”
Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor, has been working to call attention to Rubio’s attendance, playing off public disenchantment with the federal government. During a recent speech about reforming “Mount Washington,” Bush lashed out at unnamed senators who do not show up for work and called for legislation docking their pay, which is $174,000 annually.
“It’s easy for elected officials to lay out standards of performance for others. But what are high standards worth if we don’t apply them to ourselves?” Bush said. “Consider a pattern in Congress of members who sometimes seem to regard attendance and voting as optional — something to do as time permits.”
Bush has the luxury of not having a day job. Many of the candidates running for office, including other senators and a host of sitting governors, face similar pressures as Rubio.
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, has missed 54 votes since declaring for president on March 23 and has drawn heat at home for skipping out of town for a fundraiser and missing the confirmation vote on Attorney General Loretta Lynch, whom he vowed to oppose at every turn. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., has missed 35 votes since he joined the race on June 1.
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., by comparison, has missed only three votes this year, one since entering the race April 7.
“I continue to do my job in Washington, unlike some senators, who are sort of missing in action,” Paul told radio host Laura Ingraham last month. Paul is running for reelection, so he can’t afford to keep his eye off work too much.
Democratic Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont has missed only four votes since opening his campaign on May 26.
Rubio missed 29 percent of Senate votes in the first six months of 2015 while he was actively pushing his presidential campaign nationwide. Compared to other sitting senators running for president at this point in their 2008 campaigns, Rubio has missed more votes than both Obama (20 percent) and Hillary Clinton (3 percent), but not as many as John McCain (49 percent).
Rubio refused several requests to be interviewed for this story.
In March he said the balancing act between the job he was elected to do and campaigning for another job was “one of the hardest things we’ve confronted.”
A spokeswoman, Brooke Sammon, said in a statement: “It’s not unusual for presidential candidates to miss Senate votes. Senator Rubio remains fully engaged in the issues important to Florida and helping Floridians, and as he travels the country to talk about his agenda to help the middle class, there will be no doubt where he stands on any important issues before the Senate.”
As far as missing Foreign Relations committee meetings, Sammon said he is briefed on material covered “and actually has spoken separately with a number of the experts who have briefed the committee behind closed doors.”
On a few occasions, Rubio has canceled campaign events due to action in the Senate. In June, he canceled fundraising in Texas to help a major trade bill clear a procedural hurdle. It would have failed without his vote. The next day, when the bill came up for final passage, and facing a lower threshold, Rubio was back on the road in New Hampshire.
Last Monday, Rubio had to participate in a candidate forum in New Hampshire by video remote, staying in Washington to vote on stripping funding for Planned Parenthood. The measure didn’t have enough support, but missing it would have hurt Rubio among social conservative voters.
Rubio appears to be counting on voters to give him a break.
“The only people who would really care are people in Florida and since he’s not running for reelection, I don’t know if that’s a big deal,” said Mason-Dixon pollster Brad Coker. “If it has any small effect, it might be his standing vs. Jeb Bush in the Florida primary.”
Steve Schale, who ran Obama’s 2008 campaign in Florida, concurred there is little risk for Rubio. “Now if he were to lose and come back and run for governor, you bet his absenteeism while running for president will be an issue.”
The issue has a history in Florida. In 2006, Charlie Crist savaged gubernatorial opponent Jim Davis for missing dozens of votes in the U.S. House. The most memorable ad of that campaign featured an empty chair careening throughout Washington.
A couple of years later, Democrats turned the attack on Crist for appearing to care more about positioning himself as a vice-presidential candidate than governing.
Rubio went on to defeat Crist, who was painted as a ladder climber, in the 2010 Senate race. In office, Rubio quickly signaled higher ambition, using a political committee to build a staff that is now the core of his presidential campaign.
Often when he’s in Washington these days, it dovetails with his campaign interests.
He was the first lawmaker to show up for a Foreign Relations hearing on July 23 that featured testimony on the Iran deal from Secretary of State John Kerry. His campaign promoted his appearance on social media then quickly circulated video of him challenging Kerry. (Kerry missed a lot of Senate action as a presidential candidate in 2004.)
During two subsequent hearings that drew less media attention, Rubio walked in at the end, got in his criticism and promptly left. The hearing continued without him.
Tampa Bay Times staff writer Eli Murray provided data analysis for this report. Contact Alex Leary at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @learyreports.
Sen. Marco Rubio, missing in Washington
Jan. 29: Fundraising in Beverly Hills, California, Rubio misses a vote on the Keystone oil pipeline. He was the only Republican to miss the vote.
April 21: Fundraising in Dallas, Rubio misses a closed-door Intelligence Committee briefing.
June 16: Fundraising in Florida, Rubio misses a vote on an amendment to prohibiting torture of prisoners by the U.S. government. He issues a statement saying he would have voted against the amendment, which passed. “I do not support telegraphing to the enemy what interrogation techniques we will or won’t use.”
June 24: Campaigning in New Hampshire, Rubio misses a vote to fast-track trade legislation he advocated for. He did help it clear a procedural hurdle the day before.