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Democrats divided over immigration strategy

I’m told divisions have opened up among Democrats over how to push immigration reform forward in the House of Representatives, with some advocates urging a more confrontational posture with Republicans, while other Dems insist that such tactics could end up undercutting the already-slim-to-none chances that House Republicans will pass something that could lead to real reform.

At the center of the internal debate is Nancy Pelosi and the question of whether Democrats will file a so-called “discharge petition” for the Senate immigration bill. If a discharge petition were signed by a majority in the House, the measure would get a full floor vote. Those advocating for this course — including Jonathan Chait and Steve Benen, among others — note that if most Dems signed it, only a handful of Republicans would be required to get it through, and since a majority in the House supports reform, that would all but ensure passage (with mostly Dems) in a full vote.

But Dems and advocates are divided over whether it’s a good idea. “There are differences of opinion over whether this is a good strategy,” Frank Sharry, the head of pro-immigration reform America’s Voice, and a leading proponent of using the discharge strategy, acknowledges to me.

A House Democratic leadership aide tells me no decision has been made on whether to proceed with the petition. According to people familiar with the situation, it’s provoking opposition among some Dems on the House “gang of seven,” who fear it could give Republicans in the “gang” an excuse to walk away from an emerging compromise that may be the best hope for anything approaching a comprehensive bill in the House. Some Dems in the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and some Dems in border districts also are cool to the idea, because they object to the Senate bill’s huge border security buildup. They would prefer to stake their chances on the possibility of a bipartisan House bill or on conference negotiations designed to reconcile the Senate bill with whatever the House passes.

Another argument being made internally is that there is no reason to decide right now whether to act on the petition; since it must ripen for 30 legislative days (not recess days) anyway. So the decision can be made in September, once folks have a better sense of how immigration played over the break, with no time lost.

By contrast, the arguments for the petition are that it would put pressure on Republicans to act; that it’s folly to expect House Republicans to pass anything significant on their own; and that valuable time — and momentum — after passage of the Senate bill have already been squandered by waiting.

“It puts Democrats on offense, and it puts Republicans in purple districts on defense,” Sharry tells me. “It mobilizes the movement for immigration reform and leans into the legislative fight, rather than hoping John Boehner figures out a way forward.” The theory is that there are at least some House Republicans for whom not acting on reform is politically problematic; filing a discharge petition pressures them to either sign on or go to their leadership and ask it to move forward with something.

Pelosi ultimately will let members decide. “Right now, there’s no consensus that this would accomplish anything at this time,” the Dem leadership aide tells me. “But this is a play that could be used later, should members want to do it.”

For proponents, much of this turns on whether you actually think Republicans will move anything significant forward in the House of Republicans, and whether you think it’s even possible in today’s House to proceed to conference negotiations. “One of the biggest threats we face is that Republicans will slow walk immigration reform to death,” Sharry says. “This is a way to counter that.”