Florida’s master of backroom deals has 30 years of lawmaking experience, but Donald Trump’s propensity for governing with tweets and insults is making Mario Diaz-Balart’s job tougher.
The 56-year-old Miami Republican prides himself on being the state’s senior member of the powerful House committee tasked with overseeing federal spending and being a crucial voice on immigration issues in Washington. Unlike his South Florida counterparts Carlos Curbelo and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, he doesn’t attract attention for publicly disagreeing with the president and is the only House member from Miami-Dade who voted for Trump in 2016.
But the messaging from the White House is hard to ignore as Diaz-Balart runs for reelection in District 25.
As Diaz-Balart sat down recently with an espresso — not his first caffeinated beverage of the day during hours-long spending talks — the president tweeted, without evidence, that a government-sponsored tally of 2,975 deaths in Puerto Rico due to Hurricane Maria was a political ploy by Democrats to hurt him.
Diaz-Balart said he hadn’t seen it.
“I literally do not read tweets. I don’t watch the talk shows, I watch newscasts,” Diaz-Balart said. “ If you ask me the last time I listened to or watched a talking-heads show, which unfortunately now television news is pretty much all that except for a couple of newscasts, I don’t. I have a job to do and my job is to get things done.”
Trying to ignore Trump and the constant news he generates gives Diaz-Balart the ability to sidestep criticism of the president, but choosing to keep his mouth shut has opened him up to criticism that he won’t stand up for his mostly Hispanic constituents.
He didn’t respond to most of Trump’s claims on Puerto Rico, except when the president said he was “successfully raising Billions of Dollars to help rebuild Puerto Rico,” a statement that is a direct jab at lawmakers like Diaz-Balart, who spent weeks crafting massive relief packages for Puerto Rico and Florida last year.
“The Constitution is pretty clear about that,” Diaz-Balart said, referring to Congress’ power of the purse.
If Diaz-Balart wins reelection in November, he will become the longest-tenured Republican in Congress from Florida — and the state’s most powerful House member if the GOP retains its House majority. His pitch to voters is a classic one for incumbents with clout: he’s the steady hand with experience in Washington since 2003 and the policy chops to best represent a majority Hispanic district with thousands of immigrants.
Diaz-Balart rarely makes cable news appearances, preferring instead to talk with reporters who cover the federal spending process or immigration talks in detail. He refuses to discuss private meetings, including the infamous White House session he attended where Trump reportedly referred to Haiti and African countries as “shitholes.”
“If you look at the folks who get things done, they’re not the ones on MSNBC and Fox 20 times a day,” Diaz-Balart said. “They’re the ones who sit down quietly. In Congress, appropriations have become more difficult. It’s become more difficult because of hyper-partisanship from both sides. And yet we have a constitutional obligation to get those bills done and they’re ugly and they’re not always ideal. But if you look at those bills it’s a smaller and smaller group of us that work on them, who are willing to put partisanship aside, egos aside, who can communicate with Democrats and Republicans and the administration.”
But the traditional path to reelection for a powerful incumbent has been upended by a president who thwarts sensitive negotiations on issues — like finding a solution for so-called Dreamers — by constantly offering mixed messages to members of his own party, lessening the incentive for any Democrat to compromise. Diaz-Balart failed to find enough votes for an immigration compromise earlier this year, even though he rebuked GOP leaders by signing onto a petition that would have forced a series of immigration votes with the blessing of Democrats. He now faces former judge Mary Barzee Flores in the November election, his first serious opponent in a decade.
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