House Republican leaders are launching a last-ditch push this week to stop a rebellious faction within the party from forcing a series of votes on legislation addressing the fate of undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as children.
On Thursday, those leaders will hold a rare two-hour meeting with the entire caucus aimed at crafting a politically viable path forward on a larger piece of immigration legislation. But just hours before that high-stakes meeting, it remains unclear if that path exists. And with a group of moderate Republicans close to securing enough signatures to force a vote on four separate bills that would address the fate of so-called DREAMers, fireworks are expected.
One senior Republican congressional source told The Daily Beast that lawmakers are expecting Thursday’s two-hour meeting to be a “cage match.”
The ordeal has already caused headaches for GOP leaders, who risk being caught unable to control the legislation flowing through the floor they, ostensibly, control. It also has rankled the House’s most conservative members, who are worried that voting to provide DREAMers with a pathway to citizenship without significant, broader reforms to U.S. immigration policy will spark a revolt among the Republican base just a few months before the midterm elections.
“Republicans are in charge. And it’s incumbent upon us to offer solutions, long term,” Rep. Mark Walker (R-NC), the chairman of the Republican Study Committee, the largest group of conservatives in the House, said in an interview. “We feel like it’s going to the place where, not only the base wants something, but I think as leaders here, it’s incumbent upon us to do something about this issue.”
The first seeds of the GOP insurrection came last month, when a small group of moderate, pro-immigration Republicans attempted to break the congressional impasse over immigration reform by ginning up support for a so-called discharge petition. If such a petition wins the support of the majority of all House members, it would effectively circumvent GOP leaders by forcing votes on legislation that would address the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.
As of Wednesday, supporters of the discharge petition were three signatures short of the requisite 218.
The possibility remains that Thursday’s meeting provides more drama than closure. The senior Republican congressional source does not expect Republicans to come out of the meeting until there is a resolution to an issue—immigration reform—that has vexed lawmakers for years.
“I want to see an agreement among 218 Republicans that deflates the discharge petition and puts a bill through the Senate and hopefully to the president,” Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX), a member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, said in an interview. “I think we have 218 Republicans who agree there needs to be a solution. So that’s step one. We’ve got an agreement that there needs to be an agreement.”
A broad agreement to act, however, has existed since last September, when the president rescinded the DACA program and tasked Congress with finding a solution. But lawmakers have proven repeatedly incapable of finding consensus. Complicating matters further, several lawmakers and aides told The Daily Beast that the White House was not taking an active role in the current negotiations, but was rather acting as a participant.
Among conservatives, the chief hang-up to a final deal is the possibility of a provision allowing for a pathway to citizenship for DACA recipients and other young undocumented immigrants living in the U.S.—something the conservative base has roundly criticized as “amnesty.” Additionally, House conservatives have maintained that any proposal must include “literally, physical funding of the border wall,” Walker said. The congressman added that a bill without wall funding is a “non-starter” and that any measure must include changes to legal immigration, including significant scalebacks of so-called chain migration and the diversity visa lottery system—reforms that Democrats and some Republicans have opposed.
Indeed, the inclusion of those provisions already tanked previous efforts at immigration reform on the other side of the Capitol. In February, the Senate’s week-long immigration debate failed to yield a successful outcome. The legislation that mirrored the White House’s immigration framework—and included those changes to legal immigration that conservatives were seeking—only got 39 votes, well short of the requisite 60.
If no agreement is reached on Thursday—which lawmakers acknowledge is likely—House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) has the power to stop the discharge petition in its tracks. Under House rules, discharge petitions can only be submitted on the second and fourth Monday of the month. Aides told The Daily Beast that it is possible McCarthy could simply cancel House sessions on those days, effectively thwarting the effort.
Getting to that point would mark a major embarrassment for GOP leadership. But it may be better than the alternatives. A successful discharge petition would set a template for lawmakers to work around the speaker on future matters. It “essentially means Nancy Pelosi becomes speaker for a day,” in the words of one aide.
Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) has criticized the discharge petition as “futile” because the president would not sign any of the proposals. But his detractors note that he brought up numerous Obamacare repeal-and-replace bills during the previous administration, when they were certain to receive presidential vetoes.
And they say they’re tired of waiting for Congress to act on immigration.
“I really can’t understand why [Ryan] would say that considering that he, under the rules, afforded an opportunity to file a bill that could get the president’s signature. He’s free to negotiate that bill with the White House, to draft it himself,” Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-FL), one of the Republicans leading the effort, said in an interview. “We purposely designed a process that gave everyone, including House leaders, an opportunity to weigh in on immigration.”
Many of the rogue group of lawmakers come from the centrist wing of the party. They include Hispanics such as Curbelo, and Republicans facing tough re-election battles in heavily Democratic districts, like Rep. Jeff Denham (R-CA).
If they’re successful, the House would vote on four bills: one that would provide a pathway to citizenship for DREAMers, another called the USA Act that would pair a DREAMer fix with border security funding, a conservative plan that mirrors Trump’s framework, and a fourth bill that Ryan can choose. The piece of legislation that receives the most number of votes, if it clears the 218-vote threshold, would advance.