House leaders abruptly postponed a vote Thursday on a broad immigration bill intended to unite GOP moderates and conservatives, acknowledging they lack the votes to pass the measure despite a growing uproar over separating migrant families at the border.
A fractious GOP conference and President Trump’s equivocations hamstrung leadership as they tried to rally support for their Republicans-only bills. The vote was delayed until next week on the bill that would provide $25 billion for Trump’s long-sought border wall, offer a pathway to citizenship to young undocumented immigrants and keep migrant families together in detention centers.
Earlier in the day, the House rejected a hard-line measure, 231 to 193, that would have significantly limited legal immigration and given dreamers only an uncertain reprieve.
The two immigration bills sought to respond to a pair of brewing crises precipitated by Trump: his decision to separate migrant children from their families at the southwest border, and his cancellation of a program protecting young undocumented immigrants from deportation.
But the president left Republicans confused about which bill he preferred, and a Thursday morning tweet signaled to House lawmakers that they need not bother passing anything because their bills stood no chance in the narrowly divided Senate.
In a last-ditch effort, Trump called Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) late Thursday and said he backed the broad bill. Goodlatte delivered the president’s message in a rushed, closed-door GOP meeting, but it did little to persuade opponents.
Key negotiators left the meeting more than an hour later and told reporters they would spend the coming days exploring whether they could find a way to add two elements of the hard-line bill — one requiring employers to screen workers for legal status using a federal database, another dealing with visas for agricultural workers — to the compromise in a bid to win more conservative votes.
“I appreciate the president’s opinion and his input. . . . To me, we voted today on a bill that I thought was more indicative of where the people are and what the president originally ran on,” Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pa.) said as he emerged from the session.
Conservatives have opposed the more moderate measure, believing that it amounts to “amnesty” for the DACA “dreamers” without doing enough to seal the southwest border and otherwise deter future illegal immigration. Days of images and reports about children torn from their parents, and news Thursday that the Pentagon is preparing to house as many as 20,000 migrants on military bases, has largely failed to change the internal dynamics.
The last-ditch conference meeting was aimed at assuaging House members who wanted to better understand what the bill does before voting. Instead, leadership announced a vote next week in hopes of revising the legislation. It was the second postponement within hours.
Still, several hard-liners said there was nothing leaders could do to convince them to vote for the compromise bill. “I’m a big fat ‘no,’ capital letters,” said Rep. Lou Barletta (R-Pa.). “It’s amnesty, chain migration, and there’s no guarantee that the wall will be built.”
Meanwhile, Rep. Will Hurd (R-Tex.), a key moderate voice on immigration, announced that he would oppose the legislation, in part because of the inclusion of funding for Trump’s proposed border wall, which Hurd called “an expensive and ineffective 4th-century border security tool that takes private property away from hundreds of Texans.”
The GOP standoff came five months before midterm elections when most of the party’s top strategists have urged lawmakers to focus on the economy, tax cuts and “kitchen table” issues.
But those strategists have not had the ear of the president, who has repeatedly acted to please his base of highly conservative voters — including by ending the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program last year and, in April, implementing a “zero tolerance” border policy that led to the separations of migrant children from their parents.
The lack of action has grated on a cadre of Republican moderates, who moved last month to force votes on several immigration bills — including bipartisan measures that would easily pass with mostly Democratic support. But GOP leaders, who feared a conservative political backlash if a Republican House advanced such legislation, undertook a furious push to stymie the moderates.
It partially succeeded: The moderates succeeded only in securing the promise of a vote on the broad legislation alongside the more conservative bill. And since they got that commitment, their quest to protect the dreamers has been overshadowed by the family separations issue.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and Trump himself went to Capitol Hill this week to ask Congress to take action to address the brewing border crisis while also delivering on other administration immigration priorities.
But many GOP lawmakers and aides saw the lobbying effort as abortive and perplexing, culminating in a Trump tweet Thursday morning that dampened House members’ enthusiasm for taking a tough vote.
Neither bill was negotiated with Democrats or was expected to garner any Democratic votes. The separations crisis has prompted Democrats to dig in against the Republican immigration efforts, barring a complete reversal of Trump’s policy.
“Democrats are dedicated to securing our border, but we don’t think putting children in cages is the way to do it,” Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said Thursday. “This is outside the circle of human behavior.”
Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) said the GOP’s inability to find consensus inside its ranks would remain a persistent barrier to action on immigration — at least, he said, until Democrats win congressional majorities.
“They’re bringing legislation to the floor that was negotiated exclusively between their right wing and their extreme right wing,” he said. “They’re polarizing this issue in such a way that it’s going to be more and more difficult to actually fix things.”
At a late-morning news conference, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) did not concede defeat but repeatedly referenced the prospect of both bills failing and characterized scheduled votes as “a legitimate exercise.”
“I think we’re advancing the cause even if something doesn’t pass,” he said. “I think these are the seeds that are going to be planted for an ultimate solution.”
The likelihood of failure unleashed frustrations across Capitol Hill this week — including a heated floor argument Wednesday night between Ryan and Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), a key conservative leader, who accused GOP leaders of reneging on negotiations.
But most of the frustrations were reserved for Trump — who, in the eyes of many Republicans, created a problem, demanded Congress solve it, then actively undermined his party’s efforts to do so.
The irritations started coming to a head Tuesday, when Trump visited House Republicans on Capitol Hill. The visit was meant to urge them to vote for immigration legislation, but Trump failed to send a strong message that he wanted a particular bill passed, attendees said, and spent much of his time riffing on other subjects — and delivering a pointed dig at Rep. Mark Sanford (R-S.C.), a Trump critic who lost his primary election last week.
“I think the president needs to understand that that may have actually lost him votes in that meeting,” Rep. Raúl R. Labrador (R-Idaho) said. “The reason he was there was to emphasize that he had our backs, and I think a different message was sent.”
Then, in the Thursday morning tweet, Trump said, “What is the purpose of the House doing good immigration bills when you need 9 votes by Democrats in the Senate, and the Dems are only looking to Obstruct (which they feel is good for them in the Mid-Terms)?”
That, according to GOP aides, deflated their effort to build support for the bills because it signaled to wavering lawmakers that there is little reason to risk a conservative backlash by voting for the more moderate alternative.
“He knows exactly what he’s doing,” said Rep. Ryan Costello (R-Pa.), a suburban moderate who is leaving the House in January. “We’re going to blame Democrats and at the same time give cover to people who may not want to vote for the compromise bill.”
Karoun Demirjian, Paul Kane and Erica Werner contributed to this report.