House Speaker Paul D. Ryan moved Thursday to put down a brewing rebellion in the Republican ranks, saying he wants to put immigration legislation up for a vote later this year as centrist lawmakers threatened to take that decision out of his hands.
Ryan (R-Wis.) told reporters he would “like to” take up an immigration bill, one day after 17 Republicans signed a petition that would force votes on a number of immigration bills. A discharge petition is a rarely successful legislative maneuver that overrides the speaker’s power to determine what legislation comes to the House floor.
“Going down a path and having some kind of a spectacle on the floor that just results in a veto doesn’t solve the problem,” Ryan said, suggesting that President Trump would reject the bills that the petition would discharge. “We actually would like to solve this problem, and that is why I think it’s important for us to come up with a solution that the president can support.”
Republican leaders have cajoled rank-and-file lawmakers not to sign on to the petition, privately arguing that the issue of immigration could create an unpredictable and politically treacherous free-for-all in the middle of an election year.
“A discharge petition is not the way to solve the problem,” House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) said Thursday. “We’re working to actually get this fixed, and hopefully it can be done in a way where we can all come together.”
Ryan and fellow Republican leaders have struggled for months to build support for a bill that could pass the House with only GOP votes. Conservative hard-liners have demanded policy concessions in return for supporting a path to legal status for “dreamers” — young undocumented immigrants who arrived in the United States as children, a group that has been protected by the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.
Democrats and moderate Republicans favor legislation that would grant a more permanent solution for dreamers, perhaps in exchange for enhancements to border security.
GOP leaders appeared to have slowed the rebellion. Only one additional Republican — Rep. Steve Knight of California — signed the petition Thursday, leaving it still at least seven GOP signatures short of success. All 193 Democrats are expected to join it once enough Republicans sign to put the required 218 signatures within reach.
But several Republicans who had not signed the petition said Thursday that they were considering it. They said they were waiting for Ryan and other House leaders to present a plan that would allow some sort of immigration legislation to come to the floor.
“I’ll be patient, but it’s running a little thin,” said Rep. Dave Trott (R-Mich.), a member of the centrist Problem Solvers Caucus. “I’ll be signing it next week if we don’t have some kind of plan.”
“I think it’s an issue we have to address,” said Rep. Dennis A. Ross (R-Fla.), who has co-sponsored a bipartisan immigration bill and said he had not ruled out signing the petition.
But several other Republicans who are supporting bipartisan compromise legislation said they were not willing to sidestep the GOP leadership to force a vote.
Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.), who is seeking reelection in a hotly contested swing district, said that he wants to see a “sense of urgency” on immigration but that, “I’m not ready to sign a petition.”
“I feel like it puts our leadership in a bad spot,” he said. “I’d like to give them time to work this stuff out.”
Most of the Republicans who have signed the discharge petition represent swing districts with a significant number of DACA recipients, and they are anticipating Democratic attacks on Congress’s failure to act to protect them after Trump moved last year to cancel the program.
Ryan has played a cautious role in the immigration debate since becoming speaker in 2015. Ryan was a leading proponent of legislation that would grant a potential path to legal status for all undocumented immigrants — not just those who arrived as children, putting him at odds with the GOP’s hard-line base.
Upon becoming speaker, Ryan pledged to House conservatives that he would not bring up an immigration bill unless it had the support of a majority of Republicans. But some lawmakers have suggested that despite his public opposition to the discharge petition — an open challenge to his authority — he might not be upset if the House takes action on immigration before he retires from Congress in January.
“The speaker has made it very clear what his positions on immigration reform have been in the past,” said Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Calif.), one of the leaders of the discharge effort. “I know where his heart is and, ultimately, I know that he wants to find a solution, as well.”
A growing push to forge a bipartisan compromise ahead of an expected March deadline for DACA’s expiration fell apart because of a pair of blows: First, courts put the end of the program on hold pending appeals that are expected to reach the Supreme Court, and second, a week-long Senate debate failed to produce a consensus bill that could win the necessary 60 votes.
That snuffed out momentum in the House, where GOP leaders have struggled to build consensus inside their party.
Ryan conceded Thursday that a GOP-only immigration bill — such as the legislation co-sponsored by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) and Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Tex.) that leaders have tried to push through for months — would not be able to pass the House.
“It’s clear to us that we’re going to have to have a bill that’s going to be bipartisan, but one that the president can support,” he said.
But it is unclear that a bill that Trump supports could pass either chamber of Congress. A bill that adhered to a White House framework released this year garnered only 39 votes after a Senate debate in February, and the Trump administration subsequently explored a potentially narrower deal during budget negotiations in March.
The discharge petition would set up votes on a number of bills, including the conservative Goodlatte-McCaul bill; the more liberal Dream Act, which offers dreamers a path to permanent residency; and a bipartisan compromise bill that falls in between. Ryan would also be free to offer a fourth bill of his choosing.
The Goodlatte-McCaul bill has languished because of opposition from moderates who dislike the temporary protections it offers to DACA recipients — a three-year renewable work permit that would not offer a path to permanent residency or citizenship. Even many conservative members have balked at other provisions of the bill, particularly provisions that could decimate farmers and ranchers who rely on immigrant labor.
The legislation would require use of the federal E-Verify system to check employees’ legal eligibility to work, and while the bill would expand guest worker visas, undocumented immigrants now in the United States would have to return to their home countries before they could return and work legally.