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Diaz-Balart Describes an Immigration Deal Undone

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Diaz-Balart remains a key figure in the ongoing Republican debate over immigration. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Through most of last year, Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart asked dozens of members, aides, advocates and reporters to trust him: He had a comprehensive immigration overhaul bill that could actually pass the House.

The proposed legislation that drove the Florida Republican for months ultimately came up short. But one week into the 114th Congress, with tensions around the immigration debate as high as ever, Diaz-Balart said there are rumblings about reviving the bill — the details of which were never shared publicly — that imploded last summer.

“It’s already started,” he told CQ Roll Call last week, seated in his Capitol Hill office across from the rumpled pages of a draft bill some skeptics have dismissed as imaginary.

The dog-eared pages were overflowing from the white, industrial-sized binder typically locked safely inside a desk drawer belonging to Diaz-Balart’s chief of staff, Cesar Gonzalez. As Gonzalez flipped through the binder, the characteristic spacing and style of the bill text was unreadable at a distance, but it was instantly recognizable as the real thing.

The story of Diaz-Balart’s immigration bill in the 113th Congress — how it was born, how it thrived and how it died — has always been kept under close wraps. But he recently shared with CQ Roll Call the details of his efforts in 2013 and 2014 — and his thoughts on whether 2015 could be a year when something actually happens.

The Light Bulb Moment

For years Diaz-Balart, now in his seventh term, was part of a not-so-secret bipartisan group of House lawmakers trying to craft legislation to fix the nation’s broken immigration system.

By fall 2013, the latest incarnation of that working group had officially collapsed, though Diaz-Balart was eager to keep going.

A Latino lawmaker and one of a few House Republicans openly invested in passing legislation to give undocumented immigrants legal status, he wasn’t sure how to proceed. Then he had his “light bulb moment.”

At an informal dinner with colleagues shortly after the working group’s demise, a fellow lawmaker made an offhand remark about one of the major obstacles in the debate.

Diaz-Balart wouldn’t say what exactly was mentioned, but said he and Gonzalez, who was also in attendance, instantly recognized that clearing that hurdle could bring Republicans on board with a proposal that tightened border security while also dealing with the question of legal status.

“It was like, ‘Whoa. This could be an angle, a potential way to solve one of the biggest problems that we had,’” he recalled. “It showed us there was a way to move forward.”

Soon after, Diaz-Balart hosted a small meeting in his apartment near Capitol Hill, “to see if it really was … a potential avenue to solve some of our problems.”

Assured that he was on to something, the meetings continued. As Diaz-Balart was fielding questions and concerns, Gonzalez was writing a bill. Some of the language came from the lapsed working group’s draft — “we plagiarized a lot,” Diaz-Balart conceded — while other provisions were added, incorporating members’ feedback and experts’ advice.

Discussions were kept quiet, even as the group of confidants expanded. Diaz-Balart maintained a heavily curated inner circle to avoid leaks to the press — or to unsympathetic members. No one was allowed to walk away with copies of bill text.

“We would only go to people that we trust,” Diaz-Balart said.

“There were some people we knew would never be allies,” Gonzalez piped in, “but we came to some folks saying, ‘Is this crazy?’”

“Right,” Diaz-Balart nodded. “We knew that they couldn’t vote for it, but … ‘Is this crazy?’ Again, we could trust them. ‘Is this crazy?’

“We’re meeting with members and they’re saying, ‘No, I can’t live with this,’ ‘This is why this doesn’t work,’” he said. “And then we’d draft and go back a lot of times to these same members … back and forth back and forth back and forth.”

Making the Pitch

By early 2014, Diaz-Balart and Gonzalez were feeling good, and they started sharing more details about the bill. The circle of members “with knowledge of” the framework grew to nearly 50.

To make a complicated pitch easier to digest, they commissioned the creation of a PowerPoint presentation to break down the provisions. And to soothe the nerves of colleagues who were worried about primary challengers or political blowback for backing a comprehensive immigration fix, they hired a pollster.

“More than one secret pollster,” Diaz-Balart, said, leaning in and speaking in a conspiratorial hush. “We started polling not only theory, not only just the bill, but specifics. And the numbers that were coming back among Republicans — Southern Republicans, conservative Republicans, hardcore red-district Republicans — the pollsters flipped when they got the poll numbers back! … They were like, ‘Whoa. This is unbelievable.’ Like, ‘You really are onto something here. This gets support.’ And, by the way, not only polls, but polls and focus groups!”

Meanwhile, based on conversations, news reports and intelligence from outside groups, the two men ranked each and every House Republican on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being the most favorable and 5 being the most opposed. Some members who didn’t fit along that continuum received “X’s” next to their names — those were people who weren’t worth briefing.

The ratings system prioritized how Diaz-Balart and Gonzalez set about courting supporters.

House GOP leaders eventually became aware of the developments, and when Diaz-Balart and Gonzalez were having trouble getting the Office of the Legislative Council to take their work seriously and process requests in a timely fashion, leadership intervened.

“Eventually we called a meeting with the Leg. Council folks and leadership showed up and said, ‘This isn’t just Mr. Diaz-Balart being a Hispanic member and deciding to do an immigration bill just for the heck of it,’” Gonzalez recalled.

Then Diaz-Balart started to whip, dispatching close to a dozen allies to make calls and corner members. The goal was to get just enough members to achieve the “Hastert Rule,” where legislation passes with the majority of the majority party.

Some Democrats brought into discussions rallied support for the proposal on their side of the aisle too, with hopes that between both parties, there’d be enough votes to convince GOP leaders to bring the bill to the floor.

Diaz-Balart said they far exceeded that threshold.

“How much time did we have to whip?” he asked Gonzalez. “How much time did we allocate for this? A week? Less?”

“It was the week before the June 10 primary,” Gonzalez replied.

In other words, the day then-Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., lost his primary.

The End

By the evening of Monday, June 9, the whipping was done, and a confident Diaz-Balart and his allies scheduled a meeting for later in the week with “key decision-makers” of the House Republican Conference to make the case to bring up the bill.

On the morning of Tuesday, June 10, Diaz-Balart ran into his pollster, John McLaughlin — who also happened to be Cantor’s pollster.

Diaz-Balart knew Cantor’s margin of victory against primary challenger Dave Brat could either embolden or unnerve Republicans who said they would support the immigration plan. After all, Brat’s campaign against Cantor had been built around an argument that the House’s No. 2 Republican was a secret supporter of “amnesty” for “illegal aliens.”

According to Diaz-Balart, McLaughlin was unconcerned.

That evening, Diaz-Balart was heading home, where colleagues were already gathering. The get-together had been planned for a while, but Diaz-Balart was now intending to also make the occasion a celebration of the immigration bill’s near-success.

Then he received a message from close friend and fellow Florida Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. She was forwarding troubling poll numbers from Cantor’s race — numbers Diaz-Balart shrugged off as early exit polling.

But by the time Diaz-Balart arrived home, Cantor was done. And by Wednesday morning, the Florida congressman knew his immigration overhaul effort was, too.

“Immediately, we had some folks who we whipped ‘yes’ come to us and say, ‘I love the bill, it’s very good, but I don’t think we can do this now,’” Diaz-Balart said. “We knew right away that people were spooked. By the way, we knew Cantor [lost] for a number of reasons. But remember, originally, the narrative was just because of this issue.”

The anticipated leadership-level meeting was indefinitely postponed. A decision was made to wait and monitor whether the anxiety from Cantor’s defeat would, in Diaz-Balart’s words, “blow over.”

But in an election year, with just a few weeks left in the legislative session — and with President Barack Obama’s executive orders on immigration an emerging threat — the opportunity never presented itself again.

One month later, on July 10, Diaz-Balart convened a news conference to declare the bill dead.

“I was very depressed after that,” he said.

A New Start

Today, Diaz-Balart is chairman of an Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and that new legislative portfolio will require a significant level of attention.

The lawmaker of Cuban heritage is closely watching Obama’s new foreign policy initiatives, and there are other areas and priorities Diaz-Balart wants to pursue.

Being the Republican point-person on immigration is exhausting, tedious and often thankless work.

Yet members have started to approach him about the long-lost immigration bill of the 113th Congress, and he has begun taking meetings with interested lawmakers — even those who had previously received “X’s” in his ranking system.

If anything happens this year, it will be a long and ugly haul, with House Republicans increasingly disinclined to tackle an immigration overhaul bill, especially as they try to beat back Obama’s executive orders.

Is Diaz-Balart even the tiniest bit excited about renewed interest in his work?

Asked that question, he paused and exhaled a long, exhausted-sounding laugh.

“This has been challenging, and in that sense it’s been interesting, but it’s also been one of the most difficult and in many senses the nastiest thing I’ve ever dealt with because of the level of emotions,” he said. “I’ve had demonstrations — I get demonstrations from the right and the left, sometimes on the same day. I’ve had demonstrations in front of my house, on Christmas Eve in front of my house. Luckily my son wasn’t there, eight years old.

“It’s not gonna go away,” he said of the broken immigration system, “and I got a lot of things I’m working on. But unfortunately it seems that it’s kind of fallen to me to try to get this done. It’s not gonna fix itself.”


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