Rep. Carlos Curbelo had only been in Congress for a few months, and he was already facing a tough vote that he knew could exact political damage.
It was April 30, 2015. To boost his recently announced presidential bid, Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas had worked behind the scenes with House of Representatives tea party allies to force a controversial vote on abortion.
The measure would strike down a District of Columbia law that protected employees from their bosses’ retaliation for having abortions, using birth control or making other reproductive decisions. The House was exercising oversight powers of D.C. affairs granted by the Constitution.
The measure passed 228-192, but Curbelo refused to go along. He was one of just 13 House Republicans who voted no. Even though the measure died in the Senate and the Washington protections remain in place, Curbelo is still angry more than 17 months later.
“I’m a Catholic, and I’m a practicing Catholic. I believe we need to do everything we reasonably can to reduce the number of abortions in this country and to promote a culture of life,” he told the Miami Herald. “But this was a messaging vote, which is the type of vote I despise in Congress. I’m not going to fall in line on these votes that aren’t going to achieve anything and just give people something to talk about.”
Like most lawmakers, Curbelo has voted the same as most other members of his party on the vast majority of House votes in his nearly two years in office.
Many of the votes were on noncontroversial issues such as naming post offices, noting a deceased constituent’s achievements or honoring a state champion sports team.
On a much smaller number of votes, however, Curbelo has broken ranks with his party to take lonely stands on high-profile topics ranging from abortion and women’s health to climate change, the environment, immigration and government spending.
He’s voted against defunding Planned Parenthood. He’s voted for climate change regulations pushed by President Barack Obama but opposed by most Republicans. He’s voted against cutting benefits for workers who are in the U.S. illegally. He’s opposed shutting down the government as a way to enforce fiscal discipline. He’s voted to protect funding for medical and scientific research.
Curbelo’s votes, along with the bills he’s introduced or co-sponsored, have earned him a reputation as a moderate. In some quarters, he’s even considered that strange sort of political animal, a relatively liberal Republican.
A graph by GovTrack, a nonpartisan website that monitors Congress, places a dot representing each member of the House along an ideological spectrum from left to right. Only 10 of its 247 Republicans fall to the left of Curbelo.
Curbelo views his voting record and broader approach to politics as a reflection of a pragmatic personality that focuses on results and instinctively recoils at charged rhetoric.
“I prefer votes that actually get things done,” he said. “And if you notice what gets done in Congress, especially with a divided government, it’s issues where there’s consensus between both parties. Everything I do is intended to help us get to consensus positions.”
Curbelo doesn’t mind being labeled a centrist.
“That’s where the action’s at,” he said. “The people on either extreme draw a lot of attention to themselves, they make a lot of noise, but they don’t get anything done. I didn’t go to Congress to take the easy votes. I went to Congress to take the tough votes.”
Still, Curbelo has cast dozens of partisan votes on polarizing issues, backing bills pushed by a range of conservative groups from the Heritage Foundation to the House Freedom Caucus.
He’s voted repeatedly to repeal Obamacare and place limits on it. He voted for the Keystone pipeline, a top target of environmentalists. He angered public school teachers by voting to expand private school vouchers.
Curbelo voted against the Iran nuclear deal and for limiting the government’s ability to raise the debt ceiling. His record on firearms legislation has earned him the “NRA lap dog” label from the Brady Campaign, a leading gun-control group.
“Whether it is on immigration reform or the environment, Carlos Curbelo says one thing in Florida and does another in Washington,” Javier Gamboa, a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, told McClatchy. “Make no mistake, Carlos Curbelo is no moderate.”
But in a Congress in which voting along party lines has become the norm, Curbelo also has been willing to cast iconoclastic votes.
One of those votes occurred March 17 of this year. Along with just four other House Republicans – including fellow South Florida Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen – Curbelo voted against his political boss.
The three Cuban-American lawmakers opposed a measure authorizing House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., to file a U.S. Supreme Court brief supporting the state of Texas’ lawsuit over Obama’s executive order protecting the children of immigrants in the U.S. illegally from deportation. The high court last week refused to hear the case a second time, upholding a lower court’s ruling that had blocked Obama’s order.
“House leaders already have the authority to defend Article 1 of the Constitution,” Curbelo told the Miami Herald. “This was just another attempt to score political points rather than passing real immigration reform.”
That vote, Curbelo said, was partially tied to his background as the Miami-born son of Cuban immigrants, but it also went beyond that.
“Certainly I identify with the immigrant experience,” he said. “But even more important, all of my votes are intended to advance what I believe are reasonable solutions to immigration reform. We’ve been debating this for 10 years, and we know what the answer is: securing the border, modernizing the visa system, establishing a guest-worker program and finding a fair solution for undocumented families. In my view, that’s an earned path to citizenship.”
Curbelo, Diaz-Balart and Ros-Lehtinen have voted as a block on several prominent issues, starting with backing bills to fight climate change and supporting measures that reject Obama’s opening to Cuba.
“Climate change is obviously a major priority for my district,” Curbelo said. “We’re all aware of rising sea levels. South Florida is the tip of the spear – more specifically the Florida Keys, where people live at sea level. I have a duty to focus on this issue, and I take it very seriously.”
Yet Curbelo has not merely followed in the wake of the more senior Diaz-Balart and Ros-Lehtinen. He’s voted contrary to one or both of them at several key moments:
▪ Diaz-Balart and Ros-Lehtinen backed a measure approved Sept. 29, 2015, to make it easier for states to cut off funding to Planned Parenthood. Curbelo was among only nine Republicans who opposed the measure.
▪ On July 23, 2015, the House passed legislation penalizing “sanctuary cities” that provide refuge to immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally. Diaz-Balart and Ros-Lehtinen voted “yes,” Curbelo and four other Republicans voted “no.”
▪ Curbelo joined 73 other Republicans and 162 Democrats in a Nov. 3, 2015, vote that defeated a measure to give states more leeway in allowing heavier trucks on their roads. Diaz-Balart and Ros-Lehtinen supported it.
Diaz-Balart has known Curbelo for more than two decades. Despite their differences on some votes, Diaz-Balart respects Curbelo as a hard worker who has become a key player in his freshman term.
“He was quick to grasp complicated issues, and his approach to getting things done has yielded results for the South Florida community he represents,” Diaz-Balart said.
Curbelo has introduced 23 bills, with seven passing the House as stand-alone measures or as part of broader legislation. Those numbers are high for a first-term congressman.
Beyond geography, Curbelo’s record is also a reflection of his district’s demographics. Stretching from the southern reaches of Miami-Dade through Monroe County to the Keys, it is the epitome of a swing district, and in a crucial swing state that delivered the 2000 presidential election to George W. Bush by a 537-vote margin and that Obama won twice.
Democrat Joe Garcia held the seat before Curbelo defeated him in 2014; Garcia is running now to reclaim it.
Fifty-nine percent of eligible voters in the district are Latino, a higher share than any other in the country save three in Texas. Almost half of them are of Cuban descent.
The respected Cook Partisan Voting Index, which analyzes all 435 House districts along party lines, ranks Florida’s 26th Congressional District as plus-1 Republican. Only 13 districts in the country, all ranked as “even,” are considered less partisan.
Obama, a Democrat, received 53.6 percent of the district’s vote in 2012. Republican Curbelo, running two years ago in a nonpresidential-election year, gained 51.5 percent to defeat Garcia.
“On every single vote, whether it’s the environment or immigration or fiscal policy, I try to do what I believe is in the best interests of my community and the country,” Curbelo said. “Can it be tough sometimes? Sure. But I’m at peace.”
While he’s gone against the grain of national Republican orthodoxy on key votes, Curbelo is confident his constituents have his back.
“It so happens that an overwhelming majority of people here in my community agree with me on a lot of these issues,” he said.