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Obama's shout-out to Rubio: not the most welcome embrace

U.S. Republican Senator Marco Rubio delivers his keynote speech entitled 'American Leadership and the future of the Transatlantic Alliance'
U.S. Republican Senator Marco Rubio delivers his keynote speech entitled 'American Leadership and the future of the Transatlantic Alliance'

By Doina Chiacu

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - It probably was not the kind of attention Republican Senator Marco Rubio was seeking: a shout-out from President Barack Obama during the nationally televised State of the Union address.

But despite having weathered months of criticism from his conservative Tea Party base over immigration reform, the Florida Republican senator did not outright reject the overture from the Democratic president on common ground to help poor Americans.

"I appreciated the optimistic tone of the speech," Rubio, a potential 2016 Republican presidential contender, told reporters at a Wall Street Journal breakfast on Wednesday.

Rubio got one of Obama's few nods to individual Republicans on Tuesday night when the president discussed the earned income tax credit designed to help poorer American families.

"I agree with Republicans like Senator Rubio that it doesn't do enough for single workers who don't have kids. So let's work together to strengthen the credit, reward work, and help more Americans get ahead," Obama said, drawing a stonefaced reaction from the senator on the floor of the House of Representatives.

The morning after, Rubio clearly did not want to linger on the distinction.

"Yeah, yeah. We'll find out how that goes," he said sheepishly.

Still, while cautioning he wanted more details on the poverty proposals, Rubio acknowledged room for consensus.

He welcomed in principle Obama's proposal to expand the earned income tax credit to single Americans without children as having the same goal as his alternative plan: a "wage enhancement," that is tied to work and paid in regular paycheck increments rather than one lump sum.

"Either way, I think that's an important issue that we should focus on and if we have a debate, I think it would be productive," Rubio said.

Obama's proposal for a "starter" retirement savings plan for lower-income Americans "has potential," he added.

The acknowledgment from the Democratic president was politically sensitive for Rubio, who has taken heat from conservative Tea Party Republicans for backing the Senate's sweeping immigration reform bill, which includes a pathway to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants.

The immigration reform issue has sharply divided Republicans, with some - like Rubio - arguing that reform could help boost economic growth and others criticizing it as a form of "amnesty" for undocumented immigrants.

The 42-year-old Rubio also had words of support for one of his Republican colleagues, Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers, who delivered the official response to Obama's speech on behalf of her party.

Rubio's own words were overshadowed last year when he delivered the Republican response to the State of the Union address and awkwardly reached for a bottle of water mid-speech.

"It was probably better than mine - I didn't see it. How much water did she have?" he joked. "If she was able to go without any water, it was better than mine."

(Reporting by Doina Chiacu; editing by Caren Bohan and G Crosse)

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