clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

House members are demanding a vote on immigration — and leadership may not be able to stop them

A power struggle between lawmakers and leadership is playing out in Congress.

House Speaker Paul Ryan Speaks To The Media After Weekly House Republican Conference
The Republican House leadership team of Paul Ryan, Kevin McCarthy, and Steve Scalise have been trying get members to stop supporting a petition on immigration.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

There is enough support in the House of Representatives to force votes on several legislative fixes for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program — and it appears to be pushing Republican leaders to actually do something on immigration.

Rep. Jeff Denham (R-CA) has been leading a move to get a majority of House members to sign on to a discharge petition that would put forward floor votes on immigration, despite Speaker Paul Ryan’s opposition. As of Thursday, Denham said he had enough support for the discharge petition to force a vote, but he continues to negotiate behind closed doors to find a compromise immigration bill leadership can bring up. Needless to say, the Republican leadership isn’t pleased.

“Obviously, we don’t like discharge petitions,” Ryan said Thursday, adding that it “loses control” on the House floor. But what Ryan means is he loses control over when and how to vote on immigration — if at all. Politico reported that Ryan and his team are “quietly promising the figures behind the discharge petition and those who might sign that they will put a bunch of immigration bills on the floor” in June — a clear effort to regain power over the situation.

It’s unclear where this petition will go. But what is clear from this effort is that rank-and-file members are increasingly becoming frustrated with deferring to leadership.

“When [members] look behind the curtain and the emperor has no clothes, then it becomes contagious,” said James Wallner, a political scientist and former executive director of the Senate Steering Committee. “And that’s what leaders don’t like. So far they have been successful in convincing members that it’s not good for the majority.”

Somehow, in the middle of primary election season, and against all efforts by House leadership to avoid immigration, the House seems poised for another fight on DACA.

Republican leaders are losing their grip

Undocumented Immigrants Wishing To Join The Military Discuss Their Cause With Legislators In D.C.
Rep. Jeff Denham is trying to force Republican leadership to address DREAMers.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

House Republican leaders have made it clear: They don’t want their members to sign on to the discharge petition to force a floor vote on various immigration bills. They say the process will devolve into chaos, that it will guarantee nothing that can actually pass will become law. They also fear it will reveal deep discord in the party — in a contentious election year, no less.

“What the leadership would like to happen is for members not to act, same in the Senate, because then you can’t control what happens next,” Wallner said.

Yet support for the petition was growing by the hour Thursday. Denham, a California Republican who is vulnerable in a Hispanic-heavy district this fall, has been driving the process. He is eager to pass some kind of DACA fix.

Interestingly, he isn’t alone in pushing past leadership’s timeline this week.

On Wednesday, a bipartisan group of senators defied Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and voted to overturn the Federal Communications Commission’s controversial ruling to dismantle net neutrality.

The vote to reinstate the Obama-era net neutrality rules won the support of 49 Democrats as well as three Republican senators: Susan Collins of Maine, John Kennedy of Louisiana, and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. That group was enough to pass the 51-vote benchmark needed to repeal recently introduced federal rules, such as the FCC’s internet guidance.

To be sure, this fight will have a difficult road ahead. It has to be voted on — and to pass — in the House and be signed by the president (or gain a veto-proof majority). President Trump probably wouldn’t sign such a bill.

Then on Thursday, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand invoked an obscure Senate rule to try to put a House-passed sexual harassment and discrimination bill on the Senate calendar without McConnell’s support, in another sign of frustration.

The bill would overhaul how harassment complaints are made in Congress and make lawmakers personally accountable for paying settlements. The legislation, a version of which the House has passed 100 days ago, has been stalled in the Senate while negotiators iron out some details in the language. But many — like Gillibrand — have grown impatient.

There are a lot of ways regular members can take control. They just typically don’t.

Sen. Gillibrand And Rep. Cohen Discuss Regulations That Aim To Make Semi-Trailer Safer In Accidents
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand is trying to push a sexual harassment bill through the Senate, frustrated that leaders are dragging their feet.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

It’s not necessarily easy for rank-and-file lawmakers to force leadership’s hand. But there are ways to do it. In the past week, we have seen three different methods put into action.

Democrats, with the support of several Republicans, used the Congressional Review Act, which allows Congress to repeal recent federal rules and regulations within a specific time window from when they were enacted — it only needs a simple majority of support to pass.

In the Senate, Gillibrand invoked the obscure Rule 14, which allows members to expedite legislation by bypassing committee deliberations and putting it straight on the Senate calendar. To be clear, “placing a bill or joint resolution directly on the calendar does not guarantee that the full Senate will ever consider it,” according to the Congressional Research Service. Because of the current schedule around judicial nominations, Gillibrand would likely be blocked from calling a vote. Even so, if she had enough support, she could find a way to bypass a lot of those obstacles.

In the House, Democrats and Republicans are using a discharge petition, which can force a vote to be brought to the floor as long as it has 218 signatories. If enough House members are opposed to the process of something, they can also vote to block the rules on a bill, which determine the terms of a full floor vote — how much debate time a bill will have, which amendments will be voted on, and so forth.

All of these methods are at lawmakers’ disposal to buck leadership. Yet often — as we have seen in the leadership-driven health care, tax reform, and immigration fights this year — they don’t happen. Why? It all comes down to strong top-down party control, a desire to show a unified front, and a message that anything pushing the envelope could put the majority at risk.

“Members who theoretically want to advance an agenda aren’t doing so, because they think the majority is very important,” Wallner said, but at a certain point, that all comes to head.

“You can’t bottle up stuff forever,” Wallner said. “It keeps getting worse. At some point, things have to change. There is always another election — and then when that happens, we are not going to get it, we are never going to get it, because the parties aren’t unified.”