Last week, Carlos Curbelo ventured across the Capitol to see his hero, Arizona Sen. John McCain, speak about the need for compromise in Congress.
The moderate from Miami listened intently as the maverick from Arizona, who was recently diagnosed with brain cancer, chided colleagues from both parties on the Senate floor about the dangers of naked partisanship.
“Just had the special privilege of being in the Senate Chamber to welcome John McCain back to D.C.,” Curbelo tweeted. “He's a national hero & one of my heroes.”
But less than 72 hours later, McCain cast the crucial vote against a narrowly tailored Obamacare repeal bill — a vote that will likely give headaches to moderate House Republicans like Curbelo ahead of the 2018 elections.
Curbelo and others like him took a politically tough House vote in May to replace Obamacare. But that bill is now dead. The political ads are yet to come.
In the wake of the legislative failure, Curbelo, whose Miami-to-Key West district is the most Democratic-leaning in the country currently held by a Republican, is now talking bipartisanship.
“It's critical to our democracy for Members of Congress to put politics aside and come together to find solutions to the issues affecting our constituents,” Curbelo, who declined an interview request, said in a statement. “Our healthcare system needs reform and I've been committed to working with colleagues on both sides of the aisle to find market-based solutions that would result in increased coverage and lower costs.”
Curbelo is part of the Problem Solvers Caucus, a group of 43 House Republicans and Democrats who released a bipartisan health care plan on Monday.
Among other things, the plan calls for creating a stability fund that states can use to reduce health insurance premiums, requiring that businesses with more than 500 employees provide health insurance — instead of the current 50 employees — repealing the medical device tax and providing guidelines for states that want flexibility in the existing exchanges.
But hours before McCain’s vote, Curbelo said he was ready to proceed with the repeal of Obamacare if the Senate passed it.
Most Republican senators did not support the so-called “skinny repeal.” They viewed it as a way to start negotiations between House and Senate leaders to come up with a better plan.
Curbelo was unconvinced that any more negotiations among Republicans would work, and was ready to vote for a scaled-down repeal of Obamacare that pleased few within the GOP.
Though Curbelo doesn’t have any legislative victories to show for his Obamacare vote, the Republican Party is ready to support a potentially vulnerable incumbent who voted in favor of one of the party’s biggest priorities.
“For Curbelo’s part, he has always been consistent in his messaging for healthcare,” said National Republican Campaign Committee spokeswoman Maddie Anderson. “His vote in the House was a way to keep the debate and the conversation going forward. He was aware that he thought it needed work.”
Obamacare figures to be a huge campaign issue in 2018 for Curbelo and whoever challenges him for his seat, as 92,500 people in his district are enrolled in Obamacare, the second-highest figure for any congressional district in the country, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.
Democrat Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, who ran against state Sen. Anitere Flores in 2016, is weighing a run against Curbelo, and music producer Steven Machat announced his bid in June.
Curbelo will be a formidable incumbent in 2018. The second-term Republican consistently posts fundraising totals that rank among the highest nationally for House members. He also has reputation in Washington and his district as a bipartisan figure, mostly through his work on climate change.
But Curbelo’s healthcare vote gives Democrats a big talking point. In the build-up to the May 4 vote, Curbelo and a host of other moderate Republicans in competitive districts were largely silent on how they would vote. Some, like Texas Rep. Will Hurd and Virginia Rep. Barbara Comstock, voted no.
Curbelo voted yes.
“Curbelo has put himself in really tricky political position. He voted with [Donald] Trump and against the district he represents,” said Cole Leiter, spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the group tasked with electing Democrats to Congress.
Leiter noted that fellow Miami Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who is retiring in 2018, did not vote for the bill. Ros-Lehtinen’s district contains 96,300 Obamacare recipients, the highest number of any congressional district in the country.
“Curbelo took a vote that would kick thousands of people off of healthcare, and his closest neighbor voted the exact opposite way,” Leiter said.
Part of the bipartisan proposal endorsed by Curbelo on Monday suggests that he will discuss health care with constituents in August.
“During the August work period we will meet with constituents and stakeholders and will return to Congress ready to take action,” the proposal reads.
But it’s not clear if Curbelo plans to hold any public town hall-style events in August where constituents can ask him questions. Curbelo’s office did not respond when asked if he plans to address his health care vote in a public forum.