Paul D. Ryan seems to have forgotten the first key step in “I’m Just a Bill,” the “Schoolhouse Rock” jingle that debuted when the future House speaker was 5 years old in 1975.
“Bill,” a piece of legislation, sits on the Capitol steps and explains to a young boy all the hoops he has to go through, from committee to the House to the Senate to the White House, to become law.
But when it comes to immigration, Ryan (R-Wis.) has only one mandate for granting votes on immigration bills: President Trump’s support.
“We’re bringing bills to the floor that, if they got to his desk, he would sign,” Ryan told reporters Thursday morning.
This approach has so far resulted in repeated failure, ensuring that no legislation can actually reach Trump’s desk.
Simply put, the House cannot pass a Republican-only bill that bolsters border security and provides legal stability for up to 1.8 million undocumented immigrants who were brought here illegally by their parents or overstayed visas as children.
On Thursday, a conservative proposal received surprisingly strong support, with 193 Republicans voting yes (and 231 no votes), but it fell well short of majority backing. A vote on a second measure, billed as the “consensus” immigration package, fell apart after Ryan and his leadership team spent weeks working with all corners of the GOP conference.
Aides and lawmakers acknowledged Thursday afternoon that the bill lacked as much support as the more conservative draft — so Ryan delayed the inevitable defeat until Friday. And then, after a two-hour closed-door meeting Thursday evening, leaders kicked the vote all the way to some undetermined time next week.
At Thursday’s weekly news conference, Ryan acknowledged that one of the main goals of these votes was to forestall a renegade group of Republicans from working with Democrats to pass a more liberal overhaul of immigration laws.
If successful, that rogue group of Republicans, using a parliamentary device called a “discharge petition,” would have exposed the lame-duck speaker’s weakness in controlling the floor. He again cited Trump’s opposition to what would have been the final product of the legislation supported by moderate Republicans and the Democrats.
“Our goal was to prevent a discharge petition from reaching the floor, because a discharge petition would have brought legislation to the floor that the president would have surely vetoed,” Ryan said. “It would have been an exercise in futility.”
So instead, he set up this tortured series of votes. Republican leaders went through weeks of closed-door negotiations trying to craft a consensus bill, bringing Trump into a meeting Tuesday to tell lawmakers he would support both the conservative and the leadership bills.
The result was, well, an exercise in futility — and exposed Ryan’s continued weakness in controlling the House floor.
Because there are not enough votes to pass immigration legislation with only House Republican support, Trump’s views on these particular bills become irrelevant.
As “Bill” used to sing on Saturday mornings, in between cartoons, Congress has to first pass legislation before the president can ever sign or veto it:
Yes, I’m only a bill
And if they vote for me on Capitol Hill
Well, then I’m off to the White House
Rank-and-file Republicans seem to have accepted reality. Is there any bill that can pass with just GOP votes?
“No, and that’s the frustrating part of this,” said Rep. Mark Walker (R-N.C.), chairman of the Republican Study Group, a caucus of conservatives.
Walker participated in the weeks of negotiations that led to the consensus bill, with about a dozen different lawmakers from every ideological corner. That legislation would grant a path to citizenship for the “dreamers” and also provide an upfront $25 billion to build the border wall that Trump has demanded.
But the process left Walker deeply frustrated, labeling himself a “lean no” against the bill. He is concerned parents of dreamers would be able to use their children as a gateway to citizenship, rewarding their decision to enter the country illegally.
He even noted that Thursday’s vote on the more conservative bill was truly on the up and up. The support level hung around 170 Republicans for a while, and then at the end the number cleared 190 as lawmakers just decided to support it to protect their right flank in a future Republican primary.
Walker does not believe anything can pass tackling this issue. “Having been through these meetings and seeing that there was very little left on the table, I am very concerned that that might not happen, and that grieves me,” he said.
Rep. Steve Knight (R-Calif.), representing a swing district north of Los Angeles, agreed that any legislation tackling most of the immigration issues is “too bloated” to pass the House with only GOP votes.
Knight said that he knows the leadership-supported bill will probably go down in defeat but he still wanted to cast his affirmative vote so that his constituents know he wants to grant citizenship to those benefiting from the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
“The compromise bill gets me a lot more level with the DACA population,” he said.
Ryan acknowledged that the two votes were meant as a political exercise to allow Republicans to point to something they supported, regardless of whether it ever passed the House. “A lot of our members want to be able to express themselves by voting for the policies that they like,” Ryan said.
The speaker also cited the Senate filibuster, requiring a bipartisan supermajority of 60 votes to end debate, as “a source of the frustration we have around here.”
Any bill that passed the House, he said, would likely die in the Senate — ignoring the fact that there is no bill that has gotten to the Senate.
Finally, Ryan was asked to imagine a world with no Senate and no president. In those circumstances, could the House GOP pass an immigration bill?
“That’s a pretty ridiculous question,” he said, understandably.
Then he admitted what everyone else already knew: “I don’t know the answer to that question.”