Diaz-Balart and his fellow members of the group won’t talk about their bill, their deals, discussions or progress. The House group has no flashy nicknames. Unlike the sieve-like Senate, the House members and staffers didn’t leak info for years. They weren’t regular features on the Sunday talk-show circuit.
The House group meetings were held in different rooms in Washington. Some staffers made sure they weren’t seen congregating outside meeting so as not to arouse attention. A few wouldn’t acknowledge each other in a friendly fashion in public..
Was there a secret handshake?
“I’d tell you, but I’d have to kill you," Diaz-Balart quipped.
The club was, members say, the best-kept secret in Washington, where secrets have a shelf life about three minutes. The club was anti-Washington in this regard as well: It was all about consensus, finding common ground and not scoring points.
No votes are taken. Harsh words, threats and posturing are looked down upon.
“No one feels like a loser,” said U.S. Rep. Luis Gutiérrez, an Illinois Democrat.
“One day, Mario said ‘Luis, we really have to never end a sentence with the phrase: ‘this will kill the deal.’ It was a great idea. And ever since, we don’t do it. And it’s not only me. It’s everyone in the group.”
Among Diaz-Balart’s better qualities, Gutiérrez said, is his ability to “take off his partisan hat” — a feat for a member of the Republican whip team.
Before the two were to appear last week on the Univision’s Al Punto — a Meet the Press-like show for Spanish-speaking political junkies — Diaz-Balart lobbied Gutiérrez on the House floor to do the interview together.
“We’re really working together. Shouldn’t we exemplify that by appearing together?” Diaz-Balart said.
So they sat side-by-side, unlike Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez and Rubio, who appeared separately on the same broadcast.
“Unlike other Republicans — who are great and I love working with them — who always talk exclusively about enforcement,” Gutiérrez said, “Mario talks about the 1,400 people who are deported every day. He talks about the effect on the family. You can see it on Al Punto.”
“If you didn’t know it, that he was a Republican from Florida, you would think that he was a Democrat,” Gutiérrez said.
Rep. Jeff Denham, a California Republican, also sits on the secret immigration group and is a member of the House whip team with Diaz-Balart.
“When he speaks at the whip meetings, it’s because he has something important to say,” he said. “There are those who get up and speak all the time about every single topic. Then, there are those like Mario — very few — who don’t talk all the time and only speak when they have something to say. Everybody stops and listens.”
Denham recalls the “passion” of Diaz-Balart’s speech at the team’s first meeting after the election, when he discussed the harm of splitting up families through deportation.
Diaz-Balart also noted he had been warning Republicans for a decade about handling immigration reform. Fellow Miami Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen had been doing it for longer as had Lincoln Diaz-Balart.