After a frenzied, late-night negotiation, Speaker Paul Ryan defused a moderate Republican rebellion on Tuesday with a promise to hold high-stakes votes on immigration next week, thrusting the divisive issue onto center stage in the middle of an already difficult election season for Republicans.
The move by Ryan, announced late Tuesday by his office, was something of a defeat for the rebellious immigration moderates, who fell two signatures short of the 218 needed to force the House to act this month on bipartisan measures aimed more directly at helping young immigrants brought to the country illegally as children.
Instead, the House is most likely to vote on one hard-line immigration measure backed by President Donald Trump and conservatives — and another more moderate compromise bill that was still being drafted, according to people familiar with the talks. Had the rebels secured just two more signatures for their “discharge petition,” they would have also gotten votes on the Dream Act, which would have given legalization and a path to citizenship for young immigrants brought as children, known as Dreamers, and another bipartisan measure that would have coupled aid to Dreamers and some added border enforcement.
Ryan desperately wanted to avoid bringing those bipartisan measures to the floor. He is expected to present a detailed plan for next week’s votes to his conference Wednesday morning.
“Members across the Republican conference have negotiated directly and in good faith with each other for several weeks, and as a result, the House will consider two bills next week that will avert the discharge petition and resolve the border security and immigration issues,” a spokeswoman for Ryan, AshLee Strong, said late Tuesday.
Tuesday night’s developments were a high-wire act for Ryan and the House moderates. Under House rules, Tuesday was the deadline to force a vote in June, and as moderates and conservatives met separately late into the night, the moderates insisted that they had the votes necessary to put their petition over the top.
“We have people waiting to sign; we’ll see how the rest of the night unfolds,” Rep. Carlos Curbelo, R-Fla., a leader of the petition drive, said shortly before the speaker’s announcement.
But those signatures failed to materialize, significantly weakening their hand. The chairman of the hard-line House Freedom Caucus, Rep. Mark Meadows of North Carolina, said before Ryan’s announcement that his group wanted the House to hold votes on two immigration bills: the conservative-backed bill, which is sponsored by Rep. Robert W. Goodlatte of Virginia, and the still-unfinished compromise bill. He appears to have gotten just that.
“Right now, we have a framework of a bill, and there’s no legislative text,” Meadows told reporters Tuesday night. “There is a whole lot that needs to still be worked out with that.”
Democrats pounced on the setback for the moderates, many of whom — such as Curbelo and Reps. Jeff Denham of California and Will Hurd of Texas — are high on their target list in November.
“House Republicans’ latest failure to deliver for Dreamers is made all the more inexcusable by their many empty promises that they would get the signatures and move on the discharge petition,” Javier Gamboa, spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “If vulnerable members like Carlos Curbelo, Will Hurd, and Jeff Denham can’t get the job done with their party controlling all of Washington, they have no business serving in Congress.”
Moderate Republican lawmakers have been gathering signatures on the petition to force the House to vote on legislation that would protect hundreds of thousands of Dreamers, who have been shielded from deportation under an Obama-era program, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. Trump moved last year to end the program, leaving them vulnerable to deportation.
To force the votes, the petition needed a majority of the House — 218 signatories — which would require 25 Republican signatures if all 193 Democrats signed on. Twenty-three Republicans signed.
Ryan has feared a debate on the moderates’ legislation would divide the party just as lawmakers who are trying to defend their seats have to face voters. But leaders of the petition drive, many of them with large Hispanic constituencies, had argued that to ignore the immigration issue would put them in political peril.
“There have been some critics who say that this could cost us our majority,” said Denham, a leader of the signature drive, in a recent interview. “My concern is if we do nothing, it could cost us our majority. So yes, it’s risky. But it’s the right thing to do.”
In effect, Denham and the moderates did force Ryan’s hand. For the past several weeks, House conservatives have been in intense talks, conducted in Ryan’s office, with Denham and Curbelo. But coming up with a compromise on immigration that is acceptable to the vast majority of House Republicans is challenging, given the differing views within their conference.
Among the particularly thorny questions are whether to provide a path to citizenship for DACA recipients, precisely which young immigrants would be eligible for that path and how it would be structured. Any special pathway for DACA recipients, known as Dreamers, could be viewed by conservative members as offering “amnesty” and could prompt a backlash from the party’s right flank.
Another remaining question was what immigration enforcement measures might be included in any compromise bill — a priority for conservatives.
The petition effort got underway in May, when more than a dozen House Republicans defied Ryan by signing on. It is extremely unusual for the party in power to use such petitions; ordinarily they are a tool of protest used by the minority party.
The last successful discharge petition drive came in 2015 when Republicans and Democrats forced a vote to revive the Export-Import Bank, which guarantees loans to overseas customers buying American exports.
The petition revived an immigration debate in Congress that had been all but dead. The Senate spent a week debating immigration legislation in February, and passed nothing. The conventional wisdom was that immigration would become an issue to be fought over during elections. And some lawmakers said there was no urgency, noting that the DACA program is continuing, at least for now, at the direction of the federal courts.
But heart-rending stories featuring young immigrants continue to emerge, such as a recent Des Moines Register article about Manuel Antonio Cano Pacheco, who arrived in the United States at age 3, was forced by immigration authorities to leave his home in Iowa in April, just before his high school graduation, and was killed in Mexico.
The leaders of the signature drive planned to use the petition to bring up four immigration measures: a simple, stand-alone bill supported by Democrats that would offer a path to citizenship for DACA recipients; a hard-line measure supported by conservative Republicans that would beef up border security and limit legal immigration; a bipartisan compromise bill; and a measure of Ryan’s choosing.
Under a little-known rule called “Queen of the Hill,” the House would vote on each measure, and the one that got the most votes would be sent to the Senate, so long as it had a majority. Ryan and his fellow House leaders have been fiercely opposed to the strategy, arguing that it would produce legislation that Trump would not sign into law.