Trump says wait on immigration, but Curbelo and Diaz-Balart have no time to waste

South Florida congressmen Mario Díaz Balart, left, and Carlos Curbelo
South Florida congressmen Mario Díaz Balart, left, and Carlos Curbelo el Nuevo Herald

One day after their Republican colleagues delayed a vote on an immigration compromise bill that they helped draft, Miami Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart and Carlos Curbelo watched Donald Trump undermine their efforts to create a path to citizenship for 1.8 million young immigrants known as Dreamers with a single tweet.

"Republicans should stop wasting their time on Immigration until after we elect more Senators and Congressmen/women in November," the president tweeted Friday morning.

By then, Curbelo and Diaz-Balart could be out of the picture.

Both Republicans have been key figures in the push for a new U.S. immigration policy, but both face tough reelection challenges in heavily Hispanic districts where immigration remains a top issue among their constituents.

The Cuban-American lawmakers were part of a group of about a dozen legislators who spent the past month negotiating an immigration bill that was released last week. They aligned with the more conservative wing of their party and were willing to swallow ideas—such as decreasing the number of immigrants who are legally allowed to enter the country every year and $25 billion for President Donald Trump's border wall—in exchange for helping Dreamers.

But conservatives have been unwilling to vote for a bill that provides a pathway to legal status—described by the right as "amnesty"— to immigrants who once entered the country illegally with their parents as young children. And after appearing so close to getting their bill to a vote Thursday, Diaz-Balart and Curbelo have watched their progress backslide amid continued controversy over the separation of immigrant families at the border.

“We’re doing everything we can to make sure our colleagues know and fully understand what's in the bill given its importance," Curbelo said Friday morning, remaining optimistic. "Many of our colleagues have never worked on immigration policy and have many questions. Regarding the President, the bottom line is that he will sign the bill into law. That's critical considering our goal is to improve our country's immigration laws - not simply to have a vote.”

The turn of events late this week came after much maneuvering by Curbelo and Diaz-Balart, who were among a group of congressman pushing to procedurally force votes in the House on a series of immigration bills. They changed gears this month and got behind compromise legislation that appeared to be headed for a vote Thursday after a more conservative bill was, as expected, voted down.

Instead, it was postponed twice, at first until Friday and then until next week, after House Republicans met to discuss the legislation late in the afternoon. Trump's derision of those efforts Friday morning only complicates matters for the Miami Republicans, and leaves them less likely to have a legislative accomplishment back home as their Democratic challengers continue to criticize.

"Game over," conservative Rep. Mark Sanford told CNN Friday. "Without the president being out front, without the president having legislators' backs, there’s no way they’re going to take the risk."

These six bellwether districts will help to determine whether the Democrats can engineer a wave election to regain control of the House of Representatives in 2018.

A senior GOP House source said Friday that while leaders were supportive of both bills, there was never an expectation that either would be able to pass. But Diaz-Balart said in an interview Friday afternoon that efforts continue to try and get the legislation passed in the House and later in the more moderate Senate. He said the legislation "is not a messaging bill," and that he was in meetings through the night and morning.

"This issue isn’t going to go away, it’s not going to fix itself and I frankly fear it’s going to get worse not better," said Diaz-Balart, who hopes the legislation can be tweaked in ways that will keep it intact and assuage skeptical Republicans. "We don’t know at this stage if we’re going to be able to do that or not."

Curbelo and Diaz-Balart argue that their efforts have put the immigration issue back on the agenda after it was pushed aside by the courts earlier this year. Initially, 690,000 Dreamers who enrolled in an Obama-era program called DACA faced potential deportation after Trump decided to cancel it last year. But the courts punted on making a decision, taking the pressure off Congress to pass a legislative solution.

In May, Curbelo and Diaz-Balart signed a petition that would have forced four immigration votes in the House, including two bills supported by a minority of Republicans that had the support of many Democrats. When they chose to support more conservative legislation, their opponents, Debbie Mucarsel-Powell and Mary Barzee Flores, pounced.

Rep. Alcee Hastings, a Miramar Democrat, said Curbelo and Diaz-Balart should have held out and tried to get two more Republicans to sign the petition instead of negotiating with conservatives.

"They can say 'We tried,' but they didn't try hard enough," Hastings said. "Had they held out on the discharge petition and said 'Look, we're not going to go along with this,' they might have gotten the additional two or three votes that were needed to put a good bill on the floor that was bipartisan."

Hastings said he approached Curbelo on the House floor to tell the Miami Republican he caved when the petition effort failed, and the more moderate wing of the party decided it was worth pursuing a bill with conservatives. In response, Hastings said Curbelo gave him "some gibberish about 'Well, we couldn't get the other two votes.'"

Either way, Dreamers are no closer to having their status resolved by Congress, and Curbelo and Diaz-Balart have no guarantees that they'll be back to continue the fight after the November elections. Trump lost Curbelo's Miami-to-Key West district by more than 16 percentage points while he won Diaz-Balart's Hialeah-based district by 1.6 percentage points.

"Curbelo is in a dogfight of an election, therefore what he is about is trying to do whatever he can to ensure that he doesn't make any missteps with what he perceives as his base," Hastings said. "I think it's all about politics, it's all about how Mario and Curbelo perceive their hometown politics."

Trump's Friday morning tweet about Republicans gaining seats in the upcoming elections held a view counter to history, which has shown that ruling parties typically lose ground during the mid-terms. Republicans are seeking to maintain narrow majorities in Congress and Curbelo, in particular, is viewed as one of the more vulnerable members of Congress.

"Folks might forget what the president said but they'll remember how you voted," said Miami Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who's retiring at the end of her term. "Immigration is just the electric chair of politics for Republicans."

McClatchy DC staff writers Kate Irby and Brian Murphy contributed to this report.

Alex Daugherty, 202-383-6049, @alextdaugherty