House Republican leaders made a full-court press Wednesday to forestall a GOP immigration rebellion that they fear could derail their legislative agenda and throw their effort to hold the majority in doubt.
The effort began in a closed-door morning meeting where Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) warned that a freewheeling immigration debate could have sharp political consequences. It continued in the evening, when the leaders of a petition effort that would sidestep were summoned to a room with House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), McCarthy and three other top leaders.
Their message, according to attendees, was that efforts were underway at the highest levels, including with the White House, to get immigration legislation on the House floor before the midterm elections.
“Clearly we have had a positive impact on our leadership and on this institution because this issue is being taken seriously, and people are thinking through how something can be achieved,” said Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.), who filed the “discharge petition” that would set up votes on a series of immigration bills.
The House leaders presented no firm plan for action at the meeting, and the petition effort will continue, Curbelo and others said afterward.
Reps. John Katko (N.Y.) and David A. Trott (Mich.) became the 19th and 20th Republicans to sign the petition Wednesday. If all 193 Democrats join the petition, five more Republican signatures are needed to force action, which could come as soon as next month.
The immigration issue has bedeviled congressional Republicans, with members in swing districts eager to strike a compromise that would legalize “dreamers” — young undocumented immigrants who arrived in the United States as children — while conservatives have been wary of granting anything that could be construed as “amnesty” for lawbreakers, at least not without major policy concessions.
Ryan, speaking behind closed doors to House Republicans on Wednesday morning, asked members to give him more time to work out a way forward in conjunction with President Trump, who wants major concessions in return for legalizing dreamers.
McCarthy had a blunter message, according to two members present who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe a private meeting and as first reported by Politico: Signing the discharge petition and paving the way for passage of a moderate immigration bill could hurt Republicans in November’s elections by depressing conservative turnout and upending leadership’s plans to focus on tax cuts and other GOP successes.
“Things are going great,” one lawmaker said, paraphrasing McCarthy. “Let’s stick together.”
Curbelo and Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Calif.), another leader of the discharge effort, responded inside the meeting by recalling months of promises that the House would act.
“This is something the American public is demanding,” Denham said in an interview, adding, “I also believe the majority is at stake if we do nothing.”
Looming over the immigration debate in Congress is Trump’s desire for a border wall whose cost could reach $25 billion or beyond as well as restrictions on legal immigration channels that most Democrats and some Republicans oppose.
Ryan and McCarthy met Tuesday with Trump at the White House to discuss immigration and a possible way forward as they also face pressure from their right flank to block the discharge effort.
Members of the House Freedom Caucus are threatening to hold up passage of a massive farm bill this week unless leaders schedule a vote on a conservative immigration bill co-authored by Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) and Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Tex.). Some lawmakers believe that bringing that bill to the floor would block the discharge effort.
“I do believe that there is growing pressure on the leadership to put some immigration bill on the floor and have a real debate,” said Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), the Freedom Caucus chairman, saying he had some sympathy for the moderates: “We do agree on the fact that we need to have a real debate, have a real vote, and figure out where everybody is on immigration.”
The discharge petition would set up votes on a series of bills, including the Goodlatte-McCaul bill, which has been written to please conservatives but has languished well short of the majority necessary to pass. Two bipartisan bills are more likely to pass if brought up for a vote, but they are likely to win more support from Democrats than Republicans and could violate the informal GOP leadership rule barring the consideration of bills not supported by a majority of Republicans. Neither includes the wall or visa restrictions that Trump has demanded.
Still, the 20 House Republicans who have signed the petition have made clear they are done waiting after years of hoping their party’s leaders would bring some immigration bill — any immigration bill — to the floor.
Hours before signing the petition, Trott said his own patience had nearly run out and Congress needed to resolve the uncertainty created by Trump’s cancellation of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
“I didn’t hear a plan today,” he said after leaving the morning meeting. “Time’s running out. We need to do something.”
Ryan told reporters that discharge petitions, which require 218 signatures to bring a piece of legislation to the floor, are “a big mistake” and “disunify our majority.” He said House leaders continued to work with the White House on a way forward.
“We want to advance something that has a chance of going into law where the president would support it,” he said. “So that’s why we met with the president, to advance a strategy that addresses the issues that our members have, the concerns they have, but doing it in a way where we actually have a process that can get a presidential signature and not a presidential veto.”
Two Democrats have also signed the petition, Colorado Reps. Diana DeGette and Jared Polis, though most are holding off signing until the requisite number of Republicans are on board, according to Democratic aides.