By Scott Wong - 11/18/14 06:00 AM EST
He hasn’t even taken his first vote in Congress, but incoming freshman Rep. Carlos Curbelo is already breaking with his party on immigration.
The Florida Republican is a vocal supporter of actions on immigration reform that many in the GOP have rejected, including a Senate-passed bill that House Republican leaders have refused to bring up for a vote.
Now, as President Obama prepares to act unilaterally to relax policies for as many as 5 million illegal immigrants, Curbelo is again at odds with the majority of his party.
BoehnerJohn BoehnerIf 'bipartisanship' is now a dirty word, how about a rebranding? Cameras go dark during House Democrats' sit-in Rubio flies with Obama on Air Force One to Orlando MORE has vowed to fight Obama’s executive action “tooth and nail,” and some conservatives have even floated impeachment.
Curbelo’s response has been more measured: The president shouldn’t act alone. But if he does, it might not be illegal.
“Yeah, it can be [legal]. I don’t know what he’s going to do. Whether it’s legal or not is a question that a court will have to decide many, many months from now,” Curbelo told The Hill on Monday, as he and his wife, Cecilia, walked between freshman orientation events in the Capitol.
“The more important question is: Would it be responsible?”
Curbelo’s softer tone on immigration is partly a reflection of his personal background but also of the political realities of his immigrant-heavy district. He is the son of Cuban exiles, while his wife’s parents also have roots in Cuba.
He beat another Cuban-American, incumbent Democratic Rep. Joe GarciaJoe GarciaHispanic Caucus PAC looks to flex its muscles in 2016 Wake up, Democrats — Koch empire targets 2016 Hispanic vote Immigration action jolts '16 races MORE, for the 26th District seat, which covers a wide swath of South Florida, where 7 in 10 residents are of Hispanic heritage.
House GOP leaders have held up Curbelo, 34, a Miami-Dade County School Board member, as an example of how their conference is becoming more diverse. The GOP freshman class also includes another Cuban-American: Alex Mooney (W.Va.); two black members: Will Hurd (Texas) and Mia Love (Utah); and several other women.
But Curbelo’s election this month also highlights the divisions that can emerge, when a more diverse set of GOP voices are sent to Washington. Echoing Boehner, Oregon Rep. Greg Walden, who runs the House Republicans’ campaign arm and helped elect Curbelo, said Obama will “poison the well if he acts unilaterally” on immigration.
Still, Walden said he welcomed the array of ideas and opinions that Curbelo and other freshmen are bringing to the 246-member conference.
“He’s got to represent his district, just like other members represent theirs,” Walden said in an interview. “We’ve got a lot of diversity in our conference on this issue to begin with. He’s a good, strong addition to our conference, and I’m glad that he’s here.”
Curbelo’s ties in Florida politics run deep. He started as a member of the House page program sponsored by then-Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.), another Cuban-American. He later worked as state director for appointed Sen. George LeMieux (R-Fla.), who had been chief of staff to Gov. Charlie Crist.
He isn’t totally alone when it comes to his immigration stances. Two other Cuban-American Republicans from Florida, Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, have criticized Boehner and other top GOP leaders for refusing to bring up the bipartisan Senate bill that calls for a path to citizenship for millions of immigrants living in the U.S. illegally.
“We’re the three amigos,” said Ros-Lehtinen. “We’re simpatico.”
But the congressman-elect is cognizant of the Tea Party backlash that another GOP rising star, Sen. Marco RubioMarco RubioThe Hill's 12:30 Report Former Bush national security official backing Clinton over Trump Rubio challenger takes aim at Senate reversal in new ad MORE (R-Fla.), suffered, after he helped shepherd the immigration bill through the Senate last year. Rubio is now trying to repair many of those relationships with conservatives ahead of a possible White House run.
Curbelo “understands that first and foremost, he needs to be loyal to his convictions and his voters. He is not there to be part of a choir,” said Florida-based Republican strategist Ana Navarro, who has known Curbelo for decades. “Carlos will think for himself and stand up for what he thinks is right.
“The Republican Conference and House leadership,” she said, “would be smart to look to their three South Florida colleagues to craft a pragmatic solution to move forward on immigration.”
In an interview, Garcia said Curbelo was forced to run to the right on immigration during his tough primary but said he believed his GOP opponent is sincere, when he says he wants to help pass immigration reform.
“In an election, I think he had to take certain positions that I assume, in his heart of hearts, were difficult and so he readjusted,” said Garcia, who had breakfast with Curbelo last week in Washington. “There is no way you can live in and love Miami, and not understand that this is an imperative issue for our nation.”
Curbelo said it would be irresponsible for Obama to push through his executive action during the lame-duck session before giving a new GOP-controlled Congress a chance to enact immigration reform after the new year begins. And while he fully backs a complete overhaul of U.S. immigration laws, he said he could also support a piecemeal approach.
“Again, my hope is that either he postpones any actions he plans to take,” Curbelo said, “or he is very measured and not too ambitious in what he decides to do to give Congress a chance to act.”
As his freshman class kicks off its second week of orientation, Curbelo said he’s been bending the ear of future colleagues and listening to their concerns on immigration, though it’s hardly a “persuasion campaign,” he said.
But Curbelo was dismissive of any talk by Republicans about impeachment or a government shutdown.
“The past has taught us that those strategies don’t work,” he said. “Our goal is to move forward on an issue to find a solution for the country, and those strategies aren’t going to lead us there.”