Before healthcare bill collapsed, Miami Republicans grappled with whether to back it

House Speaker Paul Ryan announces Friday that he has pulled the health care overhaul bill.
House Speaker Paul Ryan announces Friday that he has pulled the health care overhaul bill. AP

House Republicans’ healthcare plan collapsed Friday — but not before forcing Miami’s GOP lawmakers to take uncomfortable political positions that could come back to haunt them.

Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart declared his intention to vote for the American Health Care Act just moments before Speaker Paul Ryan went to the White House to inform President Donald Trump that he didn’t have enough votes to pass the legislation. A few hours later, Ryan pulled the bill from consideration.

“Did I get everything I wanted? No, by any stretch of the imagination,” Diaz-Balart said, calling the bill imperfect. But a loss, he added, would be “a big blow to the agenda — and that means everything.”

Diaz-Balart’s unfortunate timing meant he was one of the last GOP legislators to offer allegiance to a bill that already seemed doomed to fail. His decision came a day after visiting Trump at the White House along with 16 other moderate Republicans. All but one pledged their AHCA support, according to White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer.

For days, Diaz-Balart had taken pains to outline his concerns with the legislation, saying he was a “lean no” despite voting to move the bill out of the budget committee. His public ambivalence prompted courtship by White House officials, which allowed Diaz-Balart to chide the administration for its inaction on U.S.-Cuba policy.

Diaz-Balart’s strategic equivocating may have gotten him the administration’s ear. And his 25th district, which spans Northwest Miami-Dade County into Collier and Hendry counties, leans Republican: Trump won it by a little less than 2 percentage points in November.

Still, the district has one of the highest enrollment rates in the country for the federal health-insurance marketplace created by the Affordable Care Act, the program the AHCA was hoping to replace. Diaz-Balart’s willingness to leave at least some of those people without coverage, as projected under the withdrawn Republican bill, could be deployed against him by a future Democratic opponent.

The other two districts held by Miami Republicans have even higher Obamacare enrollment — which may explain why their representatives were less eager than Diaz-Balart to back the AHCA.

Rep. Carlos Curbelo refused to say Friday how he would have voted on the bill. Earlier this month, he approved it in the Ways and Means Committee but then expressed concerns after the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimated some 14 million Americans would drop or lose coverage under the plan.

“I knew crafting legislation to repair our healthcare system and ensure it operates more efficiently would not be easy, and we must take time to weigh all considerations,” Curbelo said in a statement after Ryan pulled the bill. “It remains critical that more be done to assist the most vulnerable in our communities, which is why I will work with my colleagues in favor of solutions that will improve this proposal.”

Curbelo represents the swing 26th district, a stretch from Westchester to Key West that Hillary Clinton won by 16 points. He’s a perennial target for Democrats, who have already spent days blasting him for his Ways and Means vote for the AHCA.

“For me personally, the politically expedient thing to do would have been to immediately walk away from this issue, because it is controversial, it’s emotional,” Curbelo said Friday morning. “But I feel compelled to try to be a part of the solution, so I’ve remained engaged.”

That meant sitting in Capitol Hill meetings until 11 p.m. Thursday night and beginning at 7 a.m. Friday, in part to try to ensure more healthcare tax credits for low-income Americans and to restore Florida’s Low Income Pool funding for safety-net hospitals, he said, his weary tone betraying the fact that the bill’s prospects weren’t good.

Neither Curbelo’s nor Diaz-Balart’s offices would say how many calls and emails they got for and against the AHCA, other than to say there were many of them.

Only one Miami Republican, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, announced her hard opposition to the legislation, a full 10 days before its demise. She wavered only to amend her “No” to a “Heck, no” — and then a “Hell, no.”

“The GOP leadership is pretty mad at me,” she said Friday morning, acknowledging some potential political liability for her within the party.

But her district leans sharply Democratic — Clinton won it by 19 points — and tops the nation in Obamacare enrollees, so Ros-Lehtinen’s choice was perhaps the most obvious, even if it meant making a rare, high-profile break with Diaz-Balart and Curbelo. (Every House Democrat planned to vote no.)

Friday morning, Ros-Lehtinen — who, like Curbelo, says she didn’t vote for Trump last year — lamented that the House’s most conservative Republicans, the Freedom Caucus, held so much sway over the legislation.

“The bill changed so much — I could not believe it. I think you probably have to bring your own Band-Aids now! It’s ridiculous,” she said. “They relish being dysfunctional.

“We just dug into our own hole.”

McClatchy Washington correspondent Lesley Clark contributed to this report.

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