House Speaker Paul D. Ryan on Thursday promised to produce legislation that meets President Trump’s hard-line immigration demands and addresses the fate of young undocumented immigrants in a last-ditch effort to stop a challenge from restive Republicans.
A group of two dozen GOP moderates have set a Tuesday deadline for a rogue campaign to force votes on their immigration bill over the objections of leadership. It is incumbent upon Ryan (Wis.) to bridge the divide between moderates and conservatives and avoid a public showdown that could alienate voters ahead of the midterm elections.
The weeks-long uprising over immigration reflects a growing willingness among some Republicans on Capitol Hill, especially those retiring from Congress, to openly defy Trump after a year and a half of deferential agreement.
On tariffs, Trump this week personally appealed to Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) to back off on legislation that would give Congress new authority to check the president’s trade moves. Corker rebuffed him and, with Republican and Democratic backing, introduced a measure that could get a vote.
On national security, a bipartisan group of senators proposed legislation Thursday to restore penalties on the Chinese telecommunications firm ZTE that Trump had eased.
And on Trump’s claims that federal law enforcement officials planted a “spy” in his 2016 campaign, Ryan and several other Republicans spoke up this week to say there was no evidence to support the president’s assertion.
“I think there’s always tension between the executive and Congress . . . even within the party,” Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said, attributing the skirmishing to long-standing policy disputes more than a concerted effort to stand up to the president. “You know, most Republicans don’t like tariffs; most Republicans are in the free trade camp more than the president.”
Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Tex.), chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, spoke of “a growing frustration that the administration is not listening to the concerns of the Congress on the tariffs.”
The rising frustrations over immigration have all but hijacked the House Republican agenda, drawing attention from other issues and torpedoing an unrelated farm bill last month.
Republicans huddled privately for two hours Thursday without a clear resolution, with conservative hard-liners aligned with Trump pitted against the moderates frustrated with inaction on immigration, an issue that has flummoxed the party for decades.
At stake is whether the House will act this year to offer protections to “dreamers” — young undocumented immigrants who arrived in the United States as children and are now at risk of deportation because of Trump’s cancellation last year of the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
“It’s clear that there are a lot of areas of consensus,” Ryan said Thursday at his weekly news conference. “We have the right kind of conversations happening, and the next step is to start putting pen to paper so we can get legislation to the floor.”
It remains to be seen whether a compromise is possible. Lawmakers left the room expressing optimism but seeing little evidence of an imminent breakthrough.
“If there was one option that could get both sides together right now, we wouldn’t be having this meeting today,” said Rep. Rodney Davis (R-Ill.)
The GOP rebels, who have joined forces with Democrats, face a Tuesday deadline to complete their rarely used legislative maneuver known as a “discharge petition.” They are three signatures short of completion.
Should the moderates complete the discharge petition, House members would vote on different immigration bills — including two that have significant support among Democrats but have been dismissed by conservative Republicans as offering an unacceptable amnesty.
Highlighting the tenuous state, moderates said Thursday that they had reached an accord with conservatives on a key sticking point, while conservative leaders denied any such deal was in place.
Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Calif.), a leader of the effort, said conservatives had proposed offering dreamers access to visas that could give them a path to permanent residency after eight years and eventually citizenship and that the moderates had tentatively agreed to accept that offer.
“Now it’s a matter of putting it on paper and seeing if we actually have an agreement,” he said.
But Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), leader of the House Freedom Caucus, said that “there is no deal” and rejected the notion that Tuesday represented a hard deadline.
“The only deadline that’s critical right now is June 25,” he said, referring to the day votes would take place if the discharge petition were completed. “Outside of that, all the rest of the deadlines are artificial.”
Several Republicans, including Ryan, said the goal was a bill that would adhere to Trump’s January immigration framework, which called for a path to citizenship but also a wall on the Mexican border and cutbacks to two legal immigration pathways.
“Hopefully, we can find a path ahead that is consistent with the four pillars that the president laid out and avoids a pointless discharge petition,” Ryan said.
But even within that “four pillars” framework, plenty remains unsettled. Sticking points include determining how many dreamers ought to be entitled to a path to citizenship, how far to scale back the existing rules allowing U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents to sponsor family members for immigration, and how to structure any border wall funding.
Other Republicans have also proposed adding other elements to a GOP immigration bill, such as a guest worker program for the agricultural industry. And the basic question of whether dreamers ought to have a path to citizenship has not been definitively answered by the most conservative House Republicans, who have long opposed amnesty for illegal immigrants.
Denham said the discharge proponents are prepared to deliver the remaining signatures by Tuesday if a deal is not reached. “I don’t think that you can have any agreement till you see it in writing,” he said.
Some GOP moderates who have already signed the petition saw notable progress.
“I think the conversation was productive enough in there that they will delay the discharge petition and continue to work on writing a bill that we can all vote on,” said Rep. Dave Trott (R-Mich.). “I think we’ll see something pretty quickly.”
Among the attendees Thursday was White House legislative director Marc Short, who said upon leaving that the discussions were headed in a positive direction and warned against the moderates’ moves.
“A discharge petition turns the House floor over to Nancy Pelosi, which is not ideal for us advancing our agenda,” Short said, referring to the House minority leader.
One idea that Republicans are exploring is providing a route to citizenship for the young immigrants in exchange for cuts to existing legal immigration programs. That is meant to address conservative objections by ensuring there is no net increase in the number of legal immigrants.
According to Denham and two Republican aides familiar with the talks, negotiators are exploring combining the visas now made available to those seeking to immigrate through the lottery-based Diversity Visa Program and through family-based sponsorships, and then allowing dreamers to apply for that pool of visas. Under proposals sketched out Thursday to Republicans, the dreamers would have to prove that they are employed, attending school or serving in the military to qualify. After eight years, the aides said, they would be entitled to permanent legal residency and could then apply for citizenship.
The compromise bill, they said, would also include border security measures, including funding for the Mexican border wall that Trump has demanded from Congress. Moderates are seeking assurances that the wall funding would be canceled if dreamers are put at risk of deportation.“Every one of those bills that might come forward has amnesty in it,” said Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), a prominent advocate of tighter immigration policies, after leaving Thursday’s meeting. “When you reward lawbreakers, you’re destroying the rule of law.”