A clash between Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.) and Latino Democratic lawmakers over his attempt to join the Congressional Hispanic Caucus has gotten so nasty that it’s threatening to derail momentum for a year-end deal to save Dreamers from deportation.
CHC members accuse Curbelo, one of the most vulnerable Republicans in the House, of seeking membership to the all-Democratic caucus just to boost his reelection chances in his Latino-heavy district. And they’re angry he’s pressing to be admitted even as he refuses to sign on to their signature bill, the DREAM Act — support they say would lend the proposal much-needed GOP muscle.
“Curbelo is clearly [the] leading [Republican] in this space, and we’d like him to lead in a more productive direction,” CHC Chairwoman Michelle Lujan Grisham (D-N.M.) said in an interview. “I would like for him to do that, and he knows that. We would all for him to do that.”
Privately, some caucus members also say the Miami lawmaker is discouraging other Republicans from embracing their legislation to protect some 700,000 undocumented immigrants who came to the country as minors. Curbelo is pushing his own, more conservative Dreamers bill, but he says he would support the Democratic plan if it reaches the House floor.
“They think I have some magical wand or something. Me signing onto that bill is going to have little, if any, effect,” Curbelo said in an interview. “A lot of them are taking the approach it has to be this or nothing. I also don’t want to be a part of that message because I don’t agree with that.”
The run-in got personal recently during a private meeting, when Curbelo accused Lujan Grisham and the CHC of discriminating against him because he’s Republican, and alluded to Grisham’s inability to speak Spanish. That jab, first reported by BuzzFeed, infuriated many caucus members, who said they were initially in favor of letting Curbelo into the group. Now, members say, they aren’t sure how they’re going to vote when they reconsider his membership bid.
The row threatens to upend Congress’ delicate negotiations to find a solution for Dreamers, whose fate is uncertain after President Donald Trump rescinded an Obama-era executive order allowing them to remain in the country and obtain work permits.
Trump gave Congress until March to provide a legislative fix, though the issue has now become wrapped up in year-end government funding talks.
House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) has emphasized that March deadline, adding he doesn’t want to tie the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program to spending negotiations.
But leaving Washington in December without addressing DACA is a nonstarter for Democrats, with some liberal lawmakers saying they’re willing to risk a shutdown unless Dreamers are taken care of. Any spending deal will need Democratic votes to pass, providing real leverage to the minority party.
Curbelo roundly denies he has told other Republicans to stay away from the DREAM Act and notes he’s been trying to join the CHC since January. He even became a board member of the CHC Institute, the caucus’ nonprofit arm, earlier this year to boost his chances with the congressional group.
Curbelo and more than a dozen other moderate House Republicans held a news conference late last week calling for GOP leaders to take action on Dreamers before the holidays. But the group would not endorse a specific proposal, and most, including Curbelo, have not signed on to the DREAM Act.
“Thank you, nice gesture. It will not lead to solving the problem,” Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-Ill.) said, dismissing the GOP news conference. “They say they support something that they won’t put their signature on.”
Curbelo leveled his own accusations at Democrats, accusing them of refusing to sign on as co-sponsors of his proposal, which is more restrictive in its criteria for applicants and thus would grant legal status to fewer people than the DREAM Act.
“Why play that game?” Curbelo said. “It’s not about the credit.” A spokeswoman for Curbelo later said he would likely sign onto the DREAM Act if more Democrats also agreed to co-sponsor his bill. The DREAM Act currently has 200 co-sponsors, including five Republicans, while Curbelo’s bill has 34 supporters, including one Democrat, Rep. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona.
Democrats counter that the DREAM Act is the best vehicle because it has bipartisan support in both the House and Senate. Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) are the leading co-sponsors of a companion bill in the Senate. And, Democrats say, they made a strategic decision shortly after Trump rescinded DACA to unite behind one proposal for fear that supporting too many alternatives would muddle their message.
Still, Lujan Grisham insists that Curbelo’s membership in the caucus, which was bipartisan until a schism in the late-1990s, is not dependent on him backing Democrats’ bill.
“There’s no quid pro quo,” Lujan Grisham said. “I agree with Curbelo that the Hispanic Caucus says it’s bipartisan and it used to be, so we should think about ways to make it work.”
But other CHC members were already wary of his reasons for trying to join the caucus now despite serving in Congress since 2015. Curbelo insists his motives aren’t tied to the 2018 election, saying he first broached the issue with another CHC member last year but decided to wait until January to officially ask to join so it wouldn’t appear to be a political calculation.
Curbelo’s 70 percent Latino district is a top target for Democrats in their quest to take back the House. Hillary Clinton won the Miami-area seat by 16 points in 2016, but Curbelo beat his Democratic challenger by a 12-point margin.
Several members said Curbelo’s reluctance to offer a full-throated endorsement of the DREAM Act gave them pause, but they were initially supportive of his joining their group when the CHC first considered the idea last month. Still, the CHC agreed to table his bid until it received guidance from House officials about whether it had to allow a Republican into the group. Since then, the CHC has officially invited Curbelo to submit a request in writing to join.
Curbelo submitted a request to join the group Monday, with a thinly veiled allusion to the ongoing dispute in his letter. “I am very hopeful that the Congressional Hispanic Caucus will send a strong message to the country that it welcomes all Hispanics and that it rejects the petty politics of exclusion and discrimination,” Curbelo wrote.
The CHC, which meets every Thursday, could vote as soon as this week on his membership. But privately, members said that although they think his reluctance to support the DREAM Act could be overcome, his clash with Lujan Grisham has soured much of the initial goodwill.
“Curbelo had this,” said one source who requested anonymity to discuss ongoing CHC deliberations. “Don’t give people reason to leave your bench. Now you’re making the caucus make a decision between you, an outlier, and someone who is thought of very highly.”