The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A Republican war breaks out over immigration, taking down the farm bill in the process

House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) emerges from the chamber just after conservatives in the House Freedom Caucus helped to kill passage of the farm bill.
House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) emerges from the chamber just after conservatives in the House Freedom Caucus helped to kill passage of the farm bill. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)
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Simmering House GOP divisions over immigration burst into the open Friday as conservatives took out their frustrations with Republican leaders by voting down an unrelated, major farm- ­policy bill.

The dramatic failure demonstrated the turmoil inside the Republican Party as President Trump and his allies push the GOP toward a more hard-line stance on immigration. It also represented a major blow for House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (Wis.) and other Republican leaders, who were caught between two warring factions.

The farm bill had nothing to do with immigration, but House conservatives used it to try to regain leverage that they had been losing behind the scenes as party centrists worked to force a vote on a bill that would legalize young undocumented immigrants who arrived in the country as children.

House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) said on May 17 that a discharge petition to force debate on immigration bills would "guarantee that nothing goes into law." (Video: Reuters)

In return for a solution for these immigrants, known as “dreamers,” conservatives are pushing to fund Trump’s signature campaign promise of a wall on the U.S. border with Mexico and outlaw “sanctuary cities.” Anything less, they say, would represent a betrayal of the GOP base ahead of this year’s midterm elections. The moderate Republicans, most representing districts with competitive races in the fall, have embraced compromise with Democrats and have been employing a rarely used legislative maneuver to force a vote.

Just four years ago, Ryan and other party leaders were advocating a softer line on immigration as part of a push to woo Hispanic voters — but Trump’s victory has changed that calculation. Now conservatives are dead set against compromising with Democrats to get the 218 votes needed to pass an immigration bill.

“That path to 218 disavows what the last election was about and what the majority of the American people want,” said Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pa.), a member of the hard-right House Freedom Caucus, “and the people in this body know it.”

Since the launch of his 2016 campaign, Trump has returned again and again to the idea of cracking down on illegal immigration and to his promise of a border wall. Ryan has said he does not want to put an immigration bill on the floor that does not have the president’s support, but it has been unclear what that would require.

Privately, White House officials are pessimistic about the prospect for an immigration deal to emerge. Trump also remains frustrated that his border wall has not gotten funded at the levels he desires. In an effort to make progress on that front, the White House plans to increase its funding request for the wall in the 2019 budget year from $1.6 billion to $2.5 billion, according to two officials knowledgeable of the situation.

The outcome of the congressional debate on immigration will also reverberate in the race to replace Ryan, who is retiring from Congress at the end of this year. Ryan’s top two lieutenants — ­Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) — both must maintain support from conservatives in the caucus if they hope to rise in leadership.

Centrist Republicans have been attempting to force a vote on legislation that would ultimately grant citizenship to immigrants who were brought to the United States illegally as children and protected by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA.

But House GOP hard-liners fear that process could allow such a bill to pass the chamber, with votes from Democrats and a minority of Republicans. They want a stand-alone vote on a conservative immigration bill that is expected to fail but would kill that effort.

Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), chairman of the Freedom Caucus, said the group decided to withhold votes for the high-profile farm bill after determining it was “not fully clear” how immigration legislation would be considered on the House floor next month.

“Hopefully we’ll fix the farm bill and the immigration bill at the same time,” Meadows said. “I think at this point we really just need to deal with immigration in an effective way, and hopefully we’ll be able to do that.”

The centrist Republicans expressed guarded optimism over leadership’s agreement to hold votes on immigration next month, although numerous details remain to be determined.

“We’ve agreed on a framework. We’ve not agreed on the contents of a bill,” said Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Calif.), a leader of the moderate effort. “We are making great progress. The fact that we are discussing a timeline is very positive.”

Bipartisan legislation probably has enough votes to pass the chamber — but only with significant Democratic support. And any immigration debate in the House is certain to divide the GOP against itself, leaving one side or the other bitter and dissatisfied no matter the outcome.

The process under consideration would ensure a vote on a conservative immigration bill from Reps. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) and Michael McCaul (R-Tex.), while also allowing moderate Republicans the opportunity to negotiate on legislation that could win the support of Trump and resolve the status of DACA recipients.

“We want to solve the DACA problem and secure the border, and I still think there’s a path to get there working with the president,” Scalise said ahead of the failed farm-bill vote.

The Goodlatte-McCaul bill authorizes construction of a border wall, cracks down on “sanctuary cities” that protect immigrants from federal immigration authorities and provides for three-year temporary guest work permits that do not offer a chance at citizenship. Leaders and conservatives agree that it does not have the votes to pass the House.

Trump’s role could be crucial. If he chooses to get involved and help direct legislative efforts in the House, the president could shape a positive outcome. But if he leaves lawmakers in the dark about his preferences while holding rallies where supporters shout “Build that wall!” the strain on House leaders could be all the greater.

Moderate Republicans’ procedural effort to force a vote on their immigration measures needs the support of five more Republicans. If the additional lawmakers sign on by the end of next week, that would force votes by the full House starting June 25.

House GOP leadership, how­ever, wants to avoid that event and will be working to craft a solution that will make as many Republicans happy as possible. They have an eye on November elections and want to avoid forcing members to take tough votes that would be held against them by constituents. The leadership will be intensely negotiating in coming days as it attempts to arrive at an immigration solution that can satisfy a large number of Republicans and pass the House, an enormously complicated endeavor.

The farm bill’s failure infuriated numerous rank-and-file Republicans fed up with dysfunction in their ranks and eager to produce a win for farmers and others in their districts.

“It is absolutely shameful that anyone would vote to derail this bill simply to score cheap political points,” said Rep. Mike Bost (R-Ill.), who is facing a strong Democratic challenge in his downstate district this year.

The farm bill that the House was voting on Friday was probably doomed in the Senate anyway, because of lack of support in that chamber for tough new work requirements for food-stamp recipients. The Senate is writing its own, bipartisan farm bill that the House may ultimately have to agree to in the end if anything is to reach Trump’s desk. The current farm legislation expires Sept. 30, but most programs can be extended in the absence of a new measure.

Trump had broadcast his support for the farm bill over Twitter on Thursday evening, writing: “Tomorrow, the House will vote on a strong Farm Bill, which includes work requirements. We must support our Nation’s great farmers!”

On Friday, deputy White House press secretary Lindsay Walters said Trump was “disappointed” by the result “and hopes the House can resolve any remaining issues in order to achieve strong work requirements and support our nation’s agricultural community.”

Seung Min Kim, Paul Kane, Josh Dawsey and Caitlin Dewey contributed to this report.