House GOP Leaders, Moderates on Collision Course Over Immigration

But lawmakers are more hopeful that they can provide certainty to DREAMers—one way or another.

Mark Wilson/Getty

House Republicans indicated on Thursday that they would stick with the outlines of an immigration proposal that has already been rejected by the Senate, putting them on a collision course with a rogue group of moderate Republicans that is seeking to force immediate votes on legislation that would address the fate of young undocumented immigrants.

The full House Republican conference met behind closed doors for two hours on Thursday morning in an attempt to stave off the effort by Republican moderates to use a “discharge petition” under the House rules. Such an effort aims to side-step GOP leaders, who usually maintain control over which bills are brought to the floor, by voting on four measures that would provide long-term certainty for DREAMers, those undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children.

“This is a personal issue that’s got to get done. We’ve been given promises for quite some time that we were going to have a vote,” said Rep. Jeff Denham (R-CA), one of the leaders of the discharge petition effort. “We’re not willing to sit back and wait and see how politics plays out. We’re going to get this done.”

Lawmakers emerged from the meeting without a definitive agreement, but they indicated that they would be moving forward on modifying an existing piece of legislation that includes all four of President Donald Trump’s immigration priorities. GOP leaders hope that such a plan would stave off the discharge petition. The meeting was lively, according to lawmakers who attended, and there was some arguing and clamoring, in addition to side conversations—all part of an effort to break the months-long impasse.

“We will be drafting a bill that’s modifying Goodlatte-McCaul to get to yes,” said Rep. Michael McCaul (R-TX), who co-authored a bill that would give legal status to DREAMers, fund the president’s border wall, and place new restrictions on legal immigration by ending so-called “chain migration” and the visa lottery program.

House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) insisted on Thursday that using those four pillars as an outline was the best way to craft a product that the president could sign into law. But in February, the Senate voted on legislation that closely mirrors those elements. It failed, winning just 39 votes—well short of the requisite 60.

“Let me say it one more time: a discharge petition will result in no law,” Ryan said at his weekly press conference. “This effort to get our members to come to a common ground is the best chance at law.”

Moderate Republican lawmakers successfully forced GOP leaders to the table by ginning up support for the discharge petition, which allows rank-and-file House members to force votes on legislation if they can get support from 218 members, or a majority. On Thursday, they remained three signatures short, with all Democrats except one having already signed on.

“It’s like the last two minutes of a football game, it goes on forever,” Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), who has signed the petition, told The Daily Beast.

Denham told The Daily Beast on Thursday that they “already have” 218 signatures—though the final three have not officially signed the petition. The deadline is next Tuesday. Absent an agreement with Republican leaders, the petition—if it reaches 218 signatures—would be officially filed, setting up votes on June 25 on four different pieces of legislation.

Those bills range from the most conservative option—one that would impose restrictions on legal immigration and authorize the president’s long-desired border wall—to the DREAM Act, which would only provide a pathway to citizenship for 1.8 million undocumented immigrants. Another includes funding for border security, while the fourth option is up to Ryan.

Lawmakers who attended the two-hour meeting on Thursday said the citizenship provisions remain the most contentious points. Republicans disagree on whether to give DREAMers a pathway to citizenship, and they also disagree on whether to extend that benefit to all individuals eligibile for DACA (around 1.8 million people) or simply those who are already enrolled in the Obama-era program (around 800,000.)

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It remains unclear if the Goodlatte-McCaul bill could even pass in the House, given that all Democrats and some Republicans oppose it. If the House can approve one of the four discharge measures, Denham said the onus then rests with the Senate.

“That’s the great thing about our democracy: we will pass a bill out of the House and we’ll see what the Senate decides to do with it,” Denham said. “But ultimately if it’s something the president supports, we would expect the Senate to have another debate.”

Amid the in-fighting over a divisive issue that has vexed lawmakers of both parties for decades, opponents of the discharge petition credited Denham and his allies with raising the issue and forcing Republican leaders to the negotiating table once again.

“The discharge petition actually did put pressure to get us where we are today to have this conference, to move forward,” McCaul said.