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Republican moderates are close to forcing an immigration fight in the House

The intensifying immigration debate in Congress, explained.

DREAMers protest in front of the Capitol, urging Congress to act to protect DACA recipients.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

As the Trump administration’s immigration policy around asylum seekers and child immigrants becomes a national flashpoint, Congress is inching closer to another contentious, high-stakes, nearly impossible-to-resolve fight over young unauthorized immigrants brought to the US as children, known as DREAMers.

More and more members of Congress are signing on to a discharge petition, which would force votes on several legislative fixes in the House for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program protecting many young undocumented immigrants. The Trump administration decided to fully sunset DACA in March, though the fate of the program has been held up in courts.

As of Tuesday, May 29, the petition officially had 213 signatories, including more than 20 Republicans. It needs 218 members to sign on to force action on the House floor, which would likely happen by the end of June. There are still three Democratic holdouts, all of whom are objecting to the possibility of funding for Trump’s border wall.

Rep. Jeff Denham (R-CA), who has been behind the push, says he has enough support to force floor votes on immigration, but he continues to negotiate behind closed doors with leadership to find a compromise bill. So far, proposals have been as narrow as simply addressing DACA itself and as far-reaching as some of the asylum policies currently under scrutiny.

At this point, House lawmakers, even those opposed to the petition, concede Denham’s effort will likely get enough signatories, even as Republican leadership has been lobbying aggressively against the petition. House Speaker Paul Ryan said he could “guarantee you a discharge petition will not make law,” hinting the outcome would be too liberal for President Trump to sign. But as leadership continues to stall on the issue, members, especially those from purple districts with a lot of Hispanic constituents, are itching for action on the issue — or at least the appearance of action.

“There is a clear frustration among our members that we haven’t had a series of votes on immigration and there’s no clear understanding of what would get a majority on the House floor,” Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-NC), who serves on the whip team, said. “There is no fairy dust in Congress; therefore, we have no immigration bill.”

What’s unclear is if this push will result in any real change for the hundreds of thousands of immigrants stuck in limbo.

Moderates are trying to force leadership’s hand to win votes

House Speaker Paul Ryan And GOP Leadership Address The Media After Weekly Conference Meeting
Moderate Republicans like Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-FL) are signing the discharge petition to force GOP leadership to act on DACA.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Denham, whose California district is 40 percent Hispanic, has been driving the process to force a House debate on immigration. He’s facing a tough reelection battle in a district the Cook Political Report rates as Even. Reps. Carlos Curbelo (R-FL) and David Valadao (R-CA), who also face difficult reelection bids this fall, have joined Denham’s fight.

“It’s my belief that we need a narrow bill with a permanent fix for DREAMers and border security,” Denham said. “I would love to address more issues than that, but trying to expedite something to the floor and get the president to sign it into law soon, and certainly before the midterms, is critical.”

The discharge petition would trigger votes on the House floor on four bills using an obscure rule called the “queen of the hill.” Under this rule, whichever bill passes by the biggest margin wins. As Vox’s Dara Lind explained, two of the bills that would get votes would give permanent legal status to DACA recipients; the third is a conservative proposal from Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-VA), which gives temporary status to DACA recipients, makes deep cuts to legal immigration, and boosts interior enforcement. The fourth bill is at Ryan’s discretion.

Lawmakers have already started taking other parts of the Republican agenda hostage over immigration. Only last week, 30 Republicans — a combination of moderates and conservatives — voted against the farm bill largely because of inaction on immigration. Politico reported that Ryan and his team were “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.

But after months of Republican leaders making empty promises, there wasn’t enough trust that these new assurances would come to fruition. Meanwhile, the discharge petition has only gained more support.

Ryan is clearly not happy with this discharge petition. He privately delivered harsh remarks on the push at the weekly House Republican conference meeting Tuesday, and he’s publicly said the discharge petition “loses control” on the House floor.

“I think he said ‘gee whiz’ and ‘gosh’ and used the word ‘crap’ once,” Rep. Mark Amodei (R-NV) told reporters about Ryan’s comments in the closed meeting. “For Paul Ryan, ‘crap’ is pretty blue language.”

None of this has stopped lawmakers from taking action. However, there are three Democratic holdouts on the petition: Reps. Filemon Vela, Vicente Gonzalez, and Henry Cuellar, all from Texas.

Vela, Cuellar, and Gonzalez are opposed to the discharge petition because a final bill would likely include funding for enhanced border security, including money for a wall. But with strong support for the discharge petition in the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, the three will face pressure from their fellow Democrats.

Vela, in particular, could be the toughest to persuade. He has a noted dislike for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, with whom he has repeatedly clashed on the issue of wall funding. Earlier this year, he issued a strong condemnation of Democrats’ past negotiations with Trump.

“I am confounded by the negotiating tactics of my fellow Democrats,” Vela said in a January statement. “Beyond the stupidity of offering unmatched concessions and negotiating against themselves, my colleagues have begun to refer to the border wall in the same way Trump’s base speak about DREAMers and undocumented people.”

Conservatives want an immigration bill that can’t pass

U.S. Congress Wrangles With Agreement To Solve Government Shutdown
Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC), the Freedom Caucus chair, has been negotiating with Republican leadership to get a vote on a conservative bill.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

The House Freedom Caucus has its own agenda. They know that whatever comes of the discharge petition process will likely be much more moderate than they’d prefer.

“I think the discharge petition is a mistake,” Rep. Andy Biggs (R-AZ) said. “Red states and previously red districts are going to struggle. I think the outcome of that would be miserable ... because you are going to see amnesty, and that would be an enormous, enormous problem.”

In this regard, the Freedom Caucus, which usually finds itself bucking Republican leaders’ demands, is on the same page as Ryan and his team about the discharge petition.

“It’s entirely different when you are bringing up a discharge petition to accomplish something that is contrary to what the mandate of 2016 is,” said Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH), one of the founding members of the Freedom Caucus. “We all know what is involved in the discharge petition ... that would result in an outcome that is not what we campaigned on, what the president campaigned on, and what we told the American people we were going to do.”

Conservatives and moderates both withheld votes during farm bill negotiations, but for wildly different reasons.

The Freedom Caucus wants a vote on Goodlatte’s bill — an expansive and very hardline immigration proposal that is not only dead on arrival in the Senate but unlikely to pass with just Republican support in the House — and only on Goodlatte’s bill.

“The Freedom Caucus and other members have been promised not once, not twice, but three times to bring Goodlatte, or something close, to it to the floor,” Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX) said.

None of that has happened, and conservatives, like moderates, are frustrated with the apparent reluctance to act on the issue. House leadership says it has been whipping votes for the Goodlatte proposal, to no success. Conservatives say Ryan is trying to slow-walk conservative legislation.

Republican leaders have tried to avoid action on immigration. That’s not working.

Activists Rally At Florida Office Of Sen. Bill Nelson In Support Of Immigrants
Despite pressure from activists, Republicans have been reluctant to touch DACA.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

It’s no secret that if it were up to Ryan, Republicans would steer clear of immigration — especially in a contentious midterm election year when Republicans are trying show a united front as the majority. Leaders would rather avoid unearthing bad blood within the party.

“As everyone knows, immigration is a divisive issue,” McHenry said. “We are a year and a half into the Congress without a series of votes on immigration for lack of some sweet spot on a bill.”

The reality in today’s Congress is that a number of Republicans have had to abandon many of their convictions to align with Trump’s agenda.

Most Republicans have long subscribed to the idea that legal immigration is good. They don’t see the merit in a 50-foot-high concrete border wall. And when it comes to giving DREAMers a path to citizenship, there’s more division than consensus.

But Trump has not only pulled the party far to the right — he has made the issue impossible to ignore. Conservatives from Trump districts have constituents who want Congress to fulfill Trump’s “build the wall” campaign promise and balk at any suggestion of “amnesty.” Meanwhile, rapidly shifting demographics in historically Republican-held districts are pushing many Republicans to compromise on the issue.

So far, conservative immigration hawks have had Trump’s ear, a reality that has made it nearly impossible to pass a bill out of the House or the Senate.

“Immigration instills a firm desire from members to vote no, not yes,” McHenry said.

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