WASHINGTON -- Republican U.S. Senators Marco Rubio and Rand Paul argued today for lower taxes as they presented distinctly different styles in wooing their party's base ahead of possible 2016 presidential bids.
"For liberty to expand, government must shrink," Paul, who represents Kentucky, said to applause at the Conservative Political Action Conference. "For the economy to grow, government must get out of the way."
Rubio, who like Paul is a favorite of the anti-tax Tea Party movement, told the audience at the conference just outside Washington that mutual respect is required in U.S. politics, if there is to be compromise.
"Just because I believe that states have the right to define marriage in a traditional way does not make me a bigot," the Floridian said. "The people who are actually closed-minded in American politics are the people who love to preach about the certainty of science with regards to our climate, but ignore the absolute fact that science has proven that life begins at conception."
Along with offering a potential preview of 2016 Republican presidential contest, the gathering in Oxon Hill, Maryland, provided a forum for one of the party's failed 2012 White House aspirants to settle some scores.
Texas Governor Rick Perry slammed President Barack Obama's leadership and implicitly criticized some of his party's most prominent members. Perry argued that the party hadn't fielded "conservative" candidates either in 2012, when former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney bested him for the nomination, or 2008, when the standard bearer was Arizona Senator John McCain. CPAC members applauded the line.
Rubio, in remarks that preceded Paul's, also stressed his opposition to any additional federal taxes as part of the debate on reducing federal deficits. "There is no tax increase in the world that will solve our long-term debt problem," he said.
Although he's viewed as a Republican leader in the push to revise immigration policy, Rubio made no significant mention of the issue. He also predicted that he'd be criticized by Democrats for not offering more new ideas.
"We don't need a new idea," he said. "There is an idea. The idea is called America and it still works."
Paul was more critical of his own party and Obama than Rubio.
"We need a Republican Party that shows up on the south side of Chicago and shouts at the top of our lungs, we are the party of jobs and opportunity" and the "ticket to the middle class," Paul said, referring to a neighborhood that is home to some of the lowest-income residents in Obama's hometown.
His party "has grown stale and moss-covered," Paul said, adding, "I don't think we need to name any names."
Rubio and Paul were the first of the Republicans often mentioned in lists of potential 2016 presidential candidates to speak at the conference.
Rubio, 41, has been engaging in many of the same activities that Obama, as a senator from Illinois, undertook in preparing for his 2008 presidential bid. These include a foreign policy trip, frequent media appearances and building a messaging operation that includes presidential campaign veterans.
Paul, 50, arrived at the convention with momentum from a 13-hour filibuster last week on the Senate floor against Obama's nominee for Central Intelligence Agency director and the administration's secret drone program.
As he took the stage, Paul dropped two spiral notebooks stuffed with papers onto a side table and joked that he'd only been given 10 "measly" minutes to speak -- yet had brought 13 hours worth of speaking material.
The annual CPAC gathering of the party's dominant and sometimes divisive wing that's aligned with the Tea Party movement comes as Republican leaders are working to reshape their brand and become more competitive in state and national elections. A Republican National Committee panel is expected to unveil some recommended changes for the party, from technological to messaging, on March 18.
The juxtaposition of the two events highlights internal divisions over style and substance, including policy positions on same-sex marriage, immigration and tax and spending matters, and testing the degree to which the party base is willing to change. The CPAC sessions may draw as many as 8,000 party activists.
Republicans often point to their control of 30 governorships -- the most since 2000 -- when challenged about the party's future. Yet most of those state leaders weren't invited to speak before the CPAC meeting -- including all of the governors who have said they will seek federal funds provided by Obama's health-care law for expansion of Medicaid, which serves the poor. Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives still assert that the health-care law should be repealed, as do many Tea Party activists.
Among those excluded are two governors considered potential presidential contenders -- Chris Christie of New Jersey and Bob McDonnell of Virginia. McDonnell, whose state is a brief drive across the Woodrow Wilson Bridge from the CPAC gathering will speak in the convention hotel during a prayer breakfast sponsored by another group.
Without naming Christie, Perry referenced him and other Republican governors who have agreed to the Medicaid expansion, saying, "Unfortunately, some of our friends and allies in the conservative movement have folded in the face of federal bribery and mounting pressure from special interest groups."
He also rejected the notion that voters were turning against fiscal and social conservative ideas, arguing that the blame for recent defeats of Republicans lies with a party that has failed to select candidates who embodied those values.
"The popular media narrative is that this country has shifted away from conservative ideals, as evidenced by the last two presidential elections," Perry said. "That might be true if Republicans had actually nominated conservative candidates in 2008 and 2012."
Before lashing out at his own party, Perry hammered Obama, who he said was playing politics with the debate over federal spending. He charged that the president was "dangerously releasing criminals onto our streets to make a political point" in a "federally sponsored jailbreak" designed to sow "hysteria" about the impact of across-the-board spending cuts.
A U.S. immigration official acknowledged during a congressional hearing today that the administration had released more than 2,000 illegal immigrants from custody last month because of budget concerns.
Al Cardenas, chairman of the Washington-based American Conservative Union that sponsors the gathering, dismissed the criticism he received in Republican circles over those not invited. He has said he chose "all-stars" from among the party's governors.
Along with Perry, governors scheduled to speak at the conference include Louisiana'sr Bobby Jindal and Wisconsin's Scott Walker. Other potential 2016 presidential candidates speaking include former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, former Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the 2012 Republican vice presidential nominee.
Christie, 50, who has expressed interest in a White House bid, has angered some fellow Republicans in recent months by praising Obama's handling of Hurricane Sandy disaster response and for criticizing U.S. House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio and his Republican-controlled chamber for delays in approving federal storm assistance.
McDonnell, 58, upset some Republicans for sponsoring Virginia transportation legislation that increases taxes. He also negotiated an agreement with state Democrats to establish a panel to make recommendations about accepting Medicaid expansion funds from Washington.
Bush, 60, arrives following a week in which questions were raised about conflicting statements he has made on immigration, an issue closely watched by CPAC attendees.
The former Florida governor proposes in a new book that many of the 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. be offered "permanent legal resident status" instead of citizenship. That's counter to his past position, as well as that of a bipartisan group of senators -- including Rubio -- studying legislation that would allow a pathway to citizenship.
Bush, the brother and son of former presidents, clarified his position last week by saying he is open to allowing undocumented immigrants a route to citizenship, so long as it is done in a way that doesn't penalize those who have followed the rules.