Demonstrators rally in support of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program outside the Capitol in Washington on Jan. 21. (Jose Luis Magana/AP)

Frustrated by Speaker Paul D. Ryan’s refusal to put immigration proposals to a House vote, a band of moderate House Republicans is using an obscure rule to force GOP leaders’ hands. If 218 lawmakers sign on to the moderates’ discharge petition, they can make the House vote on a set of immigration reform proposals — including a bill to enact into law the Obama-era program called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which protects from deportation young undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States by their parents.

Most discharge efforts fail. So the odds are heavily stacked against the renegades.

But don’t count them out. GOP moderates seem eager to buck party leaders and showcase their support for the “dreamers,” as DACA youth are also known. And with Republicans divided over immigration reform, coupled with an especially dicey election year for the GOP, the discharge effort could work.

This is how the discharge rule works

The House discharge rule allows a majority of the chamber to pry a bill or resolution out of committee over objections by party and committee leaders. With the signatures of 218 lawmakers (made public here), a chamber majority can extract any bill that has been stuck in a committee for more than 30 legislative days.

Lawmakers can also discharge “special rules,” resolutions written by the Rules Committee that set the terms of debate for bills on the House floor. If a special rule has been pending before the rules panel for more than seven legislative days (targeting a bill that has been pending for at least 30 days in committee), lawmakers can try to force the special rule from the committee onto the floor.

If a petition secures 218 signatures, it lands on the House discharge calendar. The House considers motions from the discharge calendar on only the second and fourth Mondays of the month. When the anointed day comes, it takes a majority to vote to discharge the targeted measure. Once discharged, the measure comes before the House for consideration and a vote.

This particular GOP petition would discharge a special rule, setting up votes on four immigration measures that include such issues as protecting dreamers and cutting legal immigration. The House would vote on the four proposals using a “queen of the Hill” rule, meaning that the proposal that received the most votes beyond a majority would pass the House.

Trump’s favored proposal — a bill sponsored by Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) that would match limited DACA protections with beefed-up border security and cuts to legal immigration — would take the first slot. A bill to that would enact DACA into law, sponsored by Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Calif.), would take the second. A third vote would be reserved for a proposal from Ryan, and the final vote saved for a proposal from the GOP moderates, most likely for a plan that would legalize DACA and bolster border security.

Here are three challenges for the discharge proponents

First, although the popularity of the discharge rule ebbs and flows, one thing is constant: It rarely succeeds. Between 1935 and 2016, less than 3 percent of measures targeted by discharge petitions passed the House. We can loosen the standard to count instances when the House passes a related bill to stop the discharge petition in its tracks. Even so, less than 10 percent of discharge efforts succeeded. In 2015, a bipartisan coalition did successfully discharge a bill to renew the Export-Import Bank, despite conservative GOP objections — but with the tacit support of the outgoing speaker, John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) — that was the exception that proved the rule.


Second, majority party members today are especially unlikely to sign a discharge petition — because they are typically unwilling to undercut the procedural powers of party and committee leaders. Research by Susan Miller and Marvin Overby and others shows that that’s true even when lawmakers have already endorsed a bill targeted for discharge.

That said, this discharge gambit starts with a small advantage: Republicans organized it. Indeed, given Republican divisions in an electorally challenging year, enough Republicans could sign on to make the gambit succeed. Signing the petition allows lawmakers to show that they hold their leaders at arm’s length — and that they champion the broadly popular cause of the Dreamers.

As of Wednesday night, 17 Republicans — mostly from blue and purple-tinged seats — had signed on. If every Democrat were to sign, proponents would need eight more GOP members to succeed.

Of course, Democrats know that Republicans know that their route to success will be easier if Democrats pony up all their votes. That suggests Democrats might withhold their signatures until Republicans deliver their share.

Third, organizers of discharge efforts sometimes lose the battle but win the war. Pressure from viable discharge petitions can push party leaders to put their own version of a bill on the floor.

In fact, moderates might have initiated a discharge petition for exactly that reason: to push the speaker to put party-backed immigration proposals on the floor. Given the House schedule and the infrequent call of the Discharge Calendar, a discharge vote wouldn’t occur until late June. That long stretch would give leaders a chance — if they wanted it — to work out a deal with both wings of their party. Or, perhaps more likely, it would give leaders more time to quash the petition by persuading their fellows not to break ranks with their colleagues just before they face the voters in the fall.

House GOP leaders are pushing back hard, reminding potential signers that the majority’s control of the floor agenda should not be handed over to the Democrats. Nor is there a clear path through the Senate, which reached a stalemate on four immigration bills in the winter after President Trump threatened to veto a bipartisan compromise.

If none of the proposals is likely to become law, eight more Republicans nervous about November could well decide that bucking their leaders in support of the dreamers might be just the potent electoral tonic they need.