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A House revolt over immigration just killed the farm bill — for now

It’s about food stamps and DACA.

House Speaker Paul Ryan Holds Weekly News Conference
House Speaker Paul Ryan was negotiating a compromise on immigration in the final hours leading to the farm bill vote.
Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

The House farm bill died in a vote on the floor Friday 198-213, and it all came down to a fight over immigration.

The passage of the farm bill was far from certain Friday morning. The $868 billion legislative package that subsidizes agriculture and funds food assistance programs has been mired in partisan fighting for weeks, losing support across the board.

Democrats and moderate Republicans dislike the harsher work requirements on food stamps in the bill, which experts estimate could amount to more than $20 billion in cuts to the program’s benefits and impact more than 1 million people. Conservatives don’t like it because they think those work requirements don’t go far enough. Conservative groups like the Heritage Foundation and the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity came out against the bill ahead of the vote, calling it a “missed opportunity” and decrying its “wasteful subsidy programs.” In the end, it lost 30 Republican votes, killing it altogether.

But outside the farm bill policy, support for the legislation has been on shaky ground for completely separate reasons: Lawmakers are demanding House leaders do something on immigration.

Knowing the farm bill will need as much support as it can get, Republican lawmakers used the bill as leverage to make a separate demand on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Somewhat surprisingly, that request came from both conservatives in the House Freedom Caucus and moderates like California Rep. Jeff Denham.

Now the revolt over immigration has killed the farm bill. Somehow, with midterms just six months away, and against all efforts by House leadership to avoid immigration, the House seems poised for another fight on DACA.

The push to act on immigration is gaining steam

In the past two days, House Republicans raised the stakes with leadership over immigration negotiations, threatening the fate of the farm bill.

Denham has been leading a push 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. In the House, a discharge petition can force a vote to be brought to the floor as long as it has 218 signatories. As of Thursday, Denham said he had enough support for the discharge petition to force a vote, but he was continuing to negotiate behind closed doors to find a compromise immigration bill that leadership can bring up.

Meanwhile, conservatives in the Freedom Caucus want a vote on an immigration proposal by Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-VA), which does not include a path to citizenship and imposes stricter immigration checks. That plan would be dead on arrival in the Senate and even unlikely to get enough Republican support in the House to pass.

In an effort to regain control, GOP leaders reportedly were quietly assuring lawmakers that they will put up votes for several immigration bills in June and discouraging members from signing the discharge petition.

Yet by Thursday, Denham, who is vulnerable in his Hispanic-heavy California district this fall and is eager to pass some kind of DACA fix, said he had enough signatures to force a vote. And leadership’s assurances were not enough to convince members to support the farm bill.

The question is what Republican leaders will actually concede going forward

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

It’s no secret that Ryan has tried to avoid an immigration debate from the start. In a heated midterm election cycle, the issue is a legislative fight Republican leaders would rather leave untouched.

“I don’t think the Republican leadership wanted to be here when it comes to DACA,” Yuval Levin, the conservative founding editor of National Affairs who is in Ryan’s brain trust, told me earlier this year. “They [would] much rather avoid immigration — it divides the party.”

Instead, Ryan has put clear parameters around the immigration debate. He said he would only put up a vote for a bill that could become law and that Trump would sign — knowing that’s a near-impossible feat. Then he promised Freedom Caucus chair Rep. Mark Meadows — whose group of hardliners have their hands on the Goodlatte bill — that leadership would whip their conservative proposal and put it up for a vote if it could pass.

If you ask conservatives in the Freedom Caucus, leadership has slowed that whipping process to a crawl.

The question now is whether the leadership will allow the conference to vote on that bill regardless, or if they allow a more bipartisan proposal to get a chance on the floor — or if moderates force their hand anyway.