House advocates for moderate immigration policies stood at the cusp of forcing votes on bills that would give young undocumented immigrants a pathway to U.S. citizenship — even as President Trump threatened to veto any legislation that did not hew to his hard-line views.
Backers of a rare procedural maneuver that would spark an immigration debate against the wishes of House Republican leaders were five signatures short of reaching the necessary 218 after two Republicans and six Democrats added their names to the discharge petition Thursday.
They signed the petition as conservative and moderate Republicans negotiated with House leaders to avert it — and hours after Trump responded to the effort by pledging to veto any bill that does not build “a real wall” along the U.S.-Mexico border.
“Unless it improves a wall, and I mean a wall, a real wall, and unless it improves very strong border security, there’ll be no approvals from me, because I have to either approve it or not,” Trump said during a Fox News Channel interview taped Wednesday and aired early Thursday.
Even with Trump threatening a veto, House Republican leaders want to avoid a messy floor showdown over immigration — an issue that has badly split their party for years and one they warn could cost them majority control in November.
Conservatives who embrace Trump’s hard-line stance reject any effort that they argue what amounts to amnesty for immigrants in the United States illegally. Moderates are frustrated with months of inaction after Trump canceled the Obama-era program to protect young immigrants, known as “dreamers,” from deportation.
House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) on Thursday acknowledged “very good conversations” but refused to say whether he supports a key demand from the advocates: a vote on a bill that would create permanent legal status for young immigrants who arrived in the United States illegally as children.
“We’re trying to find that sweet spot,” Ryan said. “We’re not going to negotiate through the media.”
Other leaders, including Rep. Patrick T. McHenry (R-N.C.), the chief deputy whip, predicted that the petition would ultimately succeed — heightening pressure on House leaders to come up with a Plan B.
GOP Reps. Tom Reed (N.Y.) and Brian Fitzpatrick (Pa.) signed on Thursday. The discharge proponents said they remain prepared to gather the remaining signatures next month, after Congress returns from a week-long Memorial Day break.
Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.), who filed the petition and is among the leaders of the effort to force immigration votes, said he believes that the break will make Republicans more likely to sign on when they return.
“If there’s an agreement before we get to 25 [Republican signatures], that’s the only thing that will impede our progress,” he said. “We will get to the number we need to get to.”
Whether an agreement is possible remains in serious doubt. Rep. Mark Walker (R-N.C.), who has been involved in the talks as chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee, said negotiations were “on hold” pending the recess, with a key question unresolved: whether to allow a vote on a bill granting permanent legal status for dreamers — one that, by implication or not, would give them a path to citizenship.
“Is it a special pathway or not? That’s where the hang-up is,” Walker said. “As far as putting them in front [of the line for citizenship], that’s where it shuts down.”
One bill favored by the moderates would give dreamers a 10-year path to becoming a legal permanent resident, also known as “green card” status, from which they could go through a two-year process to receive citizenship. Curbelo said “a bridge into the legal immigration system is crucial.”
Even if House Republicans could reach an internal accord, Trump’s approval remains essential. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal published Thursday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said he would bring up a House immigration bill only if “I thought there was a chance of actually making a law” — that is, Trump would sign it.
“We have to make law — not just spin our wheels,” McConnell told the Journal. He made similar comments in interviews with other news organizations.
The Senate voted on four competing immigration proposals in February; none garnered the necessary 60 votes. But a bill emerging from the House, long riven by sharp conflicts on the immigration issue, could compel the chamber to take action.
“The higher hurdle’s in the House,” said Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. “Put that marker on the table, and then we should go to work in the Senate. . . . I think it would actually make it easier.”
McHenry, who has been closely involved in the effort to quash the petition effort, said the talks will come to a head when lawmakers return to Washington next month. The backers effectively have until June 9 to gather support if they want to force votes by the end of next month.
“It’s in complete flux,” McHenry said of the talks. “There’s enough goodwill to come to a resolution. We’ll just see if we can actually close it out and get there.”
An emerging complication for the discharge proponents isn’t Republicans — it’s Democrats. While 190 House Democrats have signed — including Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (Md.), who joined Thursday — three are holding out over concerns about Trump’s border wall.
All three — Reps. Henry Cuellar, Vicente Gonzalez and Filemon Vela — represent Texas border districts where the wall is unpopular, and they fear that an immigration debate with Republicans in the House majority would simply pave the way for wall funding.
“I’m not ever going to be in a position where I’m going to enable or facilitate border wall funding,” Vela said in an interview last week. “It’s just not going to happen.”
Asked by a reporter Thursday whether his views had changed, Vela held up his cellphone and showed a news article reporting recent comments from Hoyer indicating that Democrats were willing to negotiate on the border wall.
“What part of ‘no’ do people not understand?” he said.
John Wagner contributed to this report.