MIAMIYoure not really doing this, are you?
House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) had not yet come to grips with the fact that Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-FL) was about to undertake an extraordinary effort to defy the speaker and his leadership team by forcing the House to vote on immigration reform, an effort that has been stalled for decades. Ryan wanted to try one last time to stop Curbelo in his tracks.
It was too late.
I already did, Curbelo responded. You stood here and said we were going to address this. And weve waited for months. And nothing has happened. Its the only option we feel we have left.
That critical moment next to the Republican dais on the House floor set off weeks of negotiations between Ryan, Curbelo and the Houses most conservative members. It exacerbated and further exposed long-standing rifts among Republicans over immigration policy; but perhaps more importantly, it was a moment that many in the party hope can lay the groundwork for a larger-scale revolt within the GOP.
Ryan, 48, is on his way out; Curbelo, 38, is on his way upbut only if his brand of conservatism can survive long enough in Donald Trumps Republican party, and if the moderate two-term lawmaker can successfully head off a tough re-election bid in this blue district.
Curbelo is one of the few congressional Republicans routinely going rogue out of a party that has largely been deferential to the president. His actions are owed, at least partly, to his desire to shape the partys post-Trump futurein other words, pull the GOP away from Trumpism.
There is a solid group of Republicans who believe in free enterprise, in the empowerment of the individual to achieve whatever it is that they want in life, strong national defense, good relationships with like-minded nations, pro-immigration, legal immigrationwe believe our country has a right to enforce its borders, too, Curbelo said in an interview in his Capitol Hill office. And were fighting to either preserve whats left of that party or to re-launch that party in the near future.
But the most immediate question for the south Florida lawmaker is whether he can survive long enough, politically, to make that happen.
At Sergios in south Miami, Curbelo reverts to his first language, Spanish, to order Cuban coffee and croquetas. The restaurant sits along a strip mall, but its most important feature reminds Cubans of their home country, Curbelo explains. Theres a large open window where people can order coffee and other small bites on the go, much like the similar set-ups back home.
As a World Cup soccer game played in the background, Curbelo tore into his colleagues who had just voted to quash his immigration efforts.
For most members, the politics of immigration are a lot safer than the solutions for immigration, he said, at one point stopping to cheer after the Brazilian team scored a goal. You take securing a future for Dreamers, which is an 80 percent issue, and more border security, which is a 70 percent issueyou put them together and you get 40 percent support. Its a lack of courage on both sides to say, hey, we had to accept these things that we dont like but we got something thats really important to us.
Though he was born in the U.S., the son of Cuban exiles speaks exclusively in Spanish with his daughters, Sylvie, 8, and Carolina, 6. His parents left Cuba for some of the same reasonseconomic and political oppressionthat immigrants come to the U.S. today, a background that informs his progressive views on immigration policy. Although he has never visited Cuba, the culture of his ancestors prevails in his householdand its on purpose.
In fact, its what got him in trouble with the Houses largest bloc of Hispanic lawmakers.
Last year, Curbelo sought to join the Congressional Hispanic Caucus but was blocked. All 31 members are Democrats. As Curbelo tells it, they were shocked to learn that a Republican would want to join their ranks.
Curbelo recounted a long conversation with Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D-N.M.), the chairwoman of the caucus, during which he told her he felt discriminated against because of his party affiliation.
Curbelo mentioned to her that he was proud of his Cuban roots and noted that he speaks Spanish with his daughters. (Lujan Grisham does not speak Spanish.)
I dont know if you speak Spanish, but Curbelo said, claiming he did not know at the time that she did not speak the language. That was the final straw for Lujan Grisham. But Curbelo didnt care.
Think about what youre saying, Curbelo says he told Lujan Grisham. Do you think that other people throughout our history have been told that? Like maybe blacks trying to join a country club?
Lujan Grisham, he said, got up and started yelling and walked out.
How can a group that criticizes the president for his divisive rhetoricfor singling out ethnic groups and religious groups like Muslimshow can that same group that champions diversity and inclusion refuse to admit someone who has a solid record on the most prominent issue for the Hispanic community, which is immigration? Curbelo said.
Hispanic Caucus members who opposed Curbelos bid to join the group said his vote to repeal Obamacare earlier that year, in addition to his conservative tendencies on fiscal issues and taxes, made them question whether Curbelo shared their values
I know this word is usually reserved for conservatives, but it was bigoted. It was a decision motivated by bigotry, Curbelo said. And they essentially publicly advocated for the segregation of the Hispanic community. If your leanings are more conservative or youre not affiliated with the Democratic party, you dont count.
Lujan Grishams office declined to provide an on-record response, though she ended up voting in favor of admitting him into the Hispanic Caucus.
Curbelo has increasingly become a reviled figure among the most liberal House memberseven though hes one of the most progressive Republicans and agrees with them on many issues.
The congressman, whose district includes the Everglades and the Florida Keys, recently proposed legislation to tax carbon emissions. When he arrived in Congress, he co-founded the Climate Solutions Caucus. On immigration, he has consistently voted with Democrats on legislation aimed at protecting so-called DREAMers, who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children, and he has even employed their same tactics by voting against unrelated spending bills in protest of Congress inaction on the issue. After last years deadly shooting in Las Vegas, Curbelo swiftly introduced legislation to ban so-called bump stocks. He opposed Trump from the get-go in the 2016 campaign and had initially backed Jeb Bush. He also supports same-sex marriage.
In 2016, he stayed overnight at the home of an undocumented farm worker in Homestead to get a sense of the day-to-day life for immigrants living in the U.S. illegally. He woke up with her the next morning before sunrise to pick okra with his hosts.
Its grueling work, he said of the early-morning labor. Im really glad I did it. I didnt let people know I did it, I didnt have media there or anything like that.
Its hardly Trump-iansome would say its not even conservative. But, to Curbelo, that label is being warped.
Conservatism is being tested under Trump, and Curbelo is seeking to protect it from Trumps impulses. But just as he rejected the idea of abandoning his Catholicism amid the churchs sex-abuse scandals in the early 2000s, he feels an obligation to remain in the political arena to shape the post-Trump Republican party.
As a Catholic back then I said I believe in this church, I believe that its a great force for good in the world. Its just going through a tough period. I want to be a part of making it better and revitalizing it, he said. And I think for Republicans that have struggled with the direction the party has gone in the last few years, were at that crossroads. Do we just cut and run? Or do we believe that there has to be a free-enterprise party in America that can respond to the needs and the concerns of rising generations?
In the nearby town of Homestead, Curbelo stopped by New Hope, an addiction treatment center focusing on opioid abusethe only one in his district.
The last time he visited was in September 2016 with Ohio Republican Gov. John Kasich, who at the time was helping Curbelo campaign for re-election. Curbelo has long associated himself with Republicans like Kasich and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, politicians once viewed as mainstream but who are an endangered species in todays GOP.
It was during the 2016 campaign that Curbelo emerged as one of Trumps loudest critics, even comparing him to Hugo Chvez, the late Venezuelan dictator. But he didnt vote for Hillary Clinton. And he isnt yet ready to back someone like Kasich to challenge Trump in 2020, although he isnt ruling it out.
Look, if we get immigration reform done under this president, if this trade experiment somehow works outwhich, I dont see how that happens, but maybeI think at the end of the day despite all the unfortunate rhetoric and the divisive rhetoric, he deserves to be judged for his accomplishments, Curbelo said. And well see what that looks like in a year and a half.
First elected in 2014, Curbelo faces a tough bid this year to keep his job. Clintons margin of victory in 2016 was wider here than in any other district where an incumbent Republican is running for re-election; she defeated Trump by 16 points in Floridas 26th congressional district, which includes parts of Miami-Dade County and all of Monroe County. But Curbelo defeated his Democratic opponent that year by 12 points, suggesting he can largely avoid an association with Trumps unpopularity this time around.
Democrats trying to derail Curbelos re-election hope to seize on his vote to repeal Obamacare in a district where nearly 100,000 people rely on it for health coverage. But for Democrats in the Trump era, every day brings something brand new to be outraged about, and the shelf life of a story rarely exceeds more than a few days, often giving an incumbent the advantage.
Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida, says voters interest in health care as a political issue ebbs and flows but is often among their top five concerns when they choose who will represent them in Congress. But its unclear whether it will be a determining factor in November.
Everybodys having trouble gauging where the dial is going to stop when the voting starts, MacManus said, mentioning anti-Trump movements that have gained power since the inauguration, including the March For Our Lives, the Keeping Families Together movement, and the Womens March.
Curbelo finds himself in a unusual spot. In order to win re-election here, he must keep Trump supporters in his corner while proving to the overwhelming majority of his constituents who voted for Clinton that he will continue to stand up to the president.
A victory in November against Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, his likely Democratic challenger, will depend on whether Curbelo can convince constituents hes still an independent voiceand, perhaps more importantly, whether he raises enough hell among Democrats and Republicans in Washington that voters here will want to re-hire their personal attack dog.
Several times throughout our conversation in his Capitol Hill office, Curbelo put his hand on a stack of 120 hand-signed thank-you letters to the Republicans who voted for the immigration bill he recently helped craft. He frequently referenced both the vote tally and the letters to lament his deep frustrations with what he views as both sides desire to keep the immigration debate alive simply to use it as a political cudgel.
The Democrats have to oppose anything we do on immigration because they want the American people to believe that all Republicans are anti-immigrant. So anything we propose is just bad, even if it guarantees a future for a group of peopleI call them the victims of a broken immigration systemthey have expressed a consistent desire to support, Curbelo said.
And this is where people put their own political interests, their desire to be re-elected, over whats good for the country, he added. I have no doubt that our country would be so better off with this policyand that people who agree with me voted against it is just, its depressing.
He devoted nearly two months to the effort, often taking phone calls and organizing weekend strategy sessions while lawmakers were back in their home districtseven delaying some trips home in order to continue the negotiations in stuffy Capitol Hill offices. In the end, the effort failed.
But behind the scenes, Curbelo said, he was heartened that many GOP lawmakerswho were, in his view, ignorant about basic facts of the current systemwere open to learning more about the underlying policies.
During those conversations, he fielded questions such as, Why dont these [Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals] immigrants just apply for a green card like everyone else? His colleagues apparently did not realize that DACA recipients cannot apply for green cards.
Throughout that process, he realized it was easier for many of his colleagues to double down on misinformation that he believes is at the heart of GOP orthodoxy on immigration policy.
But not all of them.
These people were willing to say, I dont care about that, this is the right thing to do, he said, holding up the list of Republicans who backed his effort.
He has confronted the Trump administration more directly than most on his side of the aisle. For example, as other Republicans verbalized their opposition to the zero tolerance family-separation policy, Curbelo took it upon himself to visit the three facilities in south Florida where children were being housed.
Last month, he was barred from entering the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children. Sitting inside his Chevrolet Suburban before driving to the next site, Curbelo fumed at administration officials, who just the night before confirmed that he could tour the facility.
But the bigger problem in Washington, Curbelo said, lies within his own ranks.
The institution is not broken. The membership is broken. Because too many people here are driven by fear because their end is to get re-elected, said Curbelo, who sleeps on a cot inside the closet of his Capitol Hill office during the work week. Their end is not to leave the country better off.
Its why he has vowed to remain in the political ring instead of running for the exitsand into the arms of industry groupslike some moderate Republicans have done amid Trumps takeover of the GOP.
To Curbelo, those people are quitters.
Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ), one of Trumps most consistent GOP critics, announced in dramatic fashion last year that he would not seek re-election because he believed his opposition to the president meant he could no longer win in a Republican primary.
Curbelo wasnt afraid to let Flake know what he thought of that mindset when they found themselves on a three-hour car ride earlier this year. The two lawmakers, accompanied by their wives, missed their flights out of West Virginia, where congressional Republicans were holding their annual retreat. Their only other option was to rent a car and drive to North Carolina, to later catch flights back home.
Curbelo told Flake, point blank, that he wished the senator would have run for re-electionregardless of how dire Flake viewed his own prospects in todays GOP.
If theyre leaving simply because they thought they couldnt win, thats something I dont appreciate, Curbelo told Flake. When you leave, youre almost giving up.
Their discussion underscores the dilemma facing Republicans who oppose Trump: jump ship, or stay on board and try to right the ship.
Stay and change it back, Curbelo said. I dont even like this whole, Oh, we have to go back to how it used to be. Thats not my goal, either. This is not going to be Ronald Reagans party ever again. Ronald Reagan is history. He was a wonderful guy, but its going to be whatever younger Americans want it to be and whatever the market demands it to be.
Curbelo didnt berate Flake for making what is a very personal decision. But he made his view known that quitting Congress at such a pivotal time for anti-Trump Republicans could damage the cause.
Were very concerned about where the partys going and the fact that we seem to be drilling down on the base, trying to get the base more excited every time. Thats obviously not a substitute for having a more welcoming philosophy, Flake said in an interview. Its very frustrating to see the party move the other direction.
Curbelo once represented the future of the Republican party: young, Hispanic, fiscally conservative, socially moderate, and pro-immigration. But today, Curbelo is far from the face of todays GOPhes on an island because, he contends, Trump has helped usher the party away from the values expressed in its 2012 autopsy report.
In my view, hes done damage in terms of our efforts to attract votes from certain parts of the population, Curbelo said. I think that when [Americans] think Donald Trump, the first word that comes to mind is not Republican. Maybe its the wall. So theres no question that he is a major force. But to say that the party is just an extension of himits not. He is unlike any president weve had in many ways. He could really run in either party.
In public, Curbelo is soft-spoken yet defiant. But at heart, Curbelo is a rabble-rouser who doesnt care much for political correctness. Its why he responded the way he did to Paul Ryan after he effectively forced the House speakers hand on immigration.
Curbelos colleagues on both sides of the aisle recently got a taste of his no-nonsense politickingone that many lawmakers directly involved in the process said they were shocked to witness.
In the heat of the internal strife among House Republicans over Curbelos and Rep. Jeff Denhams (R-CA) crusade to get immigration legislation to the floor, Curbelo was speaking with reporters when Rep. Juan Vargas (D-CA) heckled him.
You were the one we were hoping on, and you havent helped us out at all, Carlos, Vargas said, interrupting Curbelo as he took questions after a GOP conference meeting with Trump.
In the moment, Curbelo was unfazed and gave a mild-mannered response. Vargas walked away.
But later that week, Curbelo found himself in an elevator with Vargas and let the California Democrat know how he really feltcalling him a professional heckler and telling him he invented the politics of confrontation before Maxine Waters did.
The two men briefly exchanged jabs and moved on. Vargas confirmed the details of the conversation and told The Daily Beast his biggest problem with Curbelo was how he handled the discharge petition.
Vargas accused Curbelo of throwing Democrats under the busafter they agreed, unanimously, to sign onto his discharge petitionbecause Curbelo helped supervise a process whereby Republicans were ultimately crafting a bill to Trumps liking.
He doesnt seem to follow those values that he has embedded in him, Vargas told me. Hes trying to figure out how to win re-election, lets be frank. So I think he was using this as a way to show back home, Im very bipartisan. But he doesnt seem to attempt to.
Curbelo contends that getting the presidents signature was the only way to ensure success. And he needed to work with the Houses conservative blocwhich was demanding funds for a border wall and hardline restrictions on legal immigration that Democrats said were non-startersin order to win their votes. In doing so, the moderate Republicans were causing Democrats to leave the negotiating table.
Are they so opposed to this type of border security that its worth abandoning 2 million people who, in a matter of weeks, could lose their statusand for those enrolled in the DACA program, their jobsand just become destitute overnight? Curbelo vented.
The result was a classic Washington tale: both sides balked at the others efforts; nothing got done; and nobody trusted each others motives.
Here we are again, trying to find a reasonable policy and getting squeezed by radicals on both ends, Curbelo said.
Almost immediately after the votes, lawmakers approached Curbelo with apologiesand he was already all too accustomed to what they said.
Its really hard to argue against this bill, but I just cant vote for it, one colleague told him, he said.
Theyre scared of the politics, Curbelo said as he leaned in, holding up the two pieces of paper that show the Republican members who voted against each bill. I dont need the Democratic [tally] because we know how they all voted, he joked.
Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), the chairman of the hardline conservative House Freedom Caucus, has defended his members refusal to vote for the bill, citing broken promises from House Republican leadership. Still, Meadows said Curbelo was a transparent negotiator who was willing to postpone trips back home to Florida to meet with conservative members to try to find common ground.
Rep. Mark Walker (R-N.C.), the chairman of the Republican Study Committee, recalled a recent eruption on the House floor during which some Democratic lawmakers hurled insults at the Republican side of the chamber after a vote. Curbelo had voted with the Democrats, but when he saw what some of them were doing to his fellow Republicans, he approached them, raised his voice, and said, Youre not helping your cause.
He looks me in the eye and he tells me the truth, Walker said, noting that he rarely finds himself in agreement with Curbelo. And I can work with anybody who operates from that perspective. And I think thats more important. We need more of that.
It was obvious to Curbelo why Vargas confronted him despite their agreements on the underlying policies and the tactics associated with increasing public attention to those policies.
The only reason that Mr. Vargas would do that is to draw attention to himself at my expense, and to use this issue for political gain. And just like we have some nativists in the Republican party who I condemn because I think its an obtuse world view, Democrats who act that way are equally despicable and immoral, Curbelo said forcefully. Because they are using vulnerable, weak people to manipulate the American electorate while doing nothing for these people. Because they have nothing to show.
Like many Republicans critical of Trumps takeover of their party, Curbelo contends that Trump never wanted to win the presidency and was only seeking publicity. Instead, Trump tapped into a base of Republican voters who, fueled in part by economic and cultural anxieties associated with increased immigration, bristle at the 2012 autopsy.
A lot of Americans rewarded what they perceived as his authenticity, his unwillingness to read from the Republican or Democratic scripts that have been written over the last 30 or 40 years, Curbelo said.
But in the same way that Trump co-opted the GOP as the loudest voice in the room, Curbelo is confidentmaybe too confidentthat Trumps eventual departure from the American political scene, paired with the rising influence of the millennial generation, will create an opening for his brand of conservatism.
[Trump] is such a loud and enormous presence that there will be an equally enormous vacuum once his time in the White House is over. And there are many of us, especially younger-generation Republicans in Congress now, who believe that that will be our opportunity to shape the party in a way that it can respond to the fears and the concerns and the aspirations of the millennial generation, which will become in the next decade a dominant force in the electorate, Curbelo said.
So sure, its very difficult to compete with Donald Trump for attention, for ideas. Its almost impossible, he added. But theres a group of members here laying the groundwork for how we plan to win the future.
Curbelo has a more immediate worry to tend to, though: his own re-election to his House seat.
Whats changed other than the fact that hes better known, that hes got a record of getting things done? His district knows him very well. Hes not running in borrowed clothes. People know who he is, said Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-FL), whose district sits just north of Curbelos.
Curbelos biggest boosters are bullish not only on his prospects for re-election, but also on his ability to guide the GOP into a new, post-Trump era.
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) has known Curbelo, whom she endearingly calls Chuckie, since he was a teenager. Like Curbelo, she is a consistent critic of Trump and is a part of the most liberal wing of the GOP. But Ros-Lehtinen, who has served in Congress for nearly 30 years, is retiring in January and wont be in the arena to aid Curbelos mission. All she can do is hope.
Sooner or later, our guys will come around. It may appear to be an island, but he knows that theres a bridge. He knows that theres a bridge to that island, and its not a remote, isolated island, Ros-Lehtinen, whose Miami district also borders Curbelos, said in an interview.
Sam Accursio, a constituent with whom Curbelo met during a site visit in Homestead, gave his congressman some unsolicited advice as he fights for re-election and for relevance in Trumps GOP: Take out your boxing gloves, and get ready to use them.
Keep your mouthpiece in. Because youre getting slugged around.