Hoping to defuse a Republican rebellion, Speaker Paul Ryan promised on Thursday that House Republicans would draft compromise legislation on immigration, setting up a showdown on one of the thorniest political issues just as the midterm campaign comes into focus.
Conservative Republicans loath to loosen immigration rules remained at odds with moderates pressing to protect young immigrants brought to the country illegally as children, as Ryan and his fellow leaders in the House labored to reach an accord. And the deadline for an agreement could come within days.
Moderate Republican lawmakers need only three more signatures on a petition to force a series of immigration votes over the speaker’s objections, including at least two that would focus on those young immigrants, known as Dreamers. Because of the arcane rules for such “discharge petitions,” those lawmakers face a Tuesday cutoff to gather the 218 names needed to force floor action in late June.
“We have a firm deadline of Tuesday,” said Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif., a leader of the petition drive. “Tuesday we will hit 218.”
After a lengthy meeting with his conference to discuss immigration, Ryan stressed that pursuing a compromise bill would be a better course than forcing the issue through a petition.
“The next step is to start putting pen to paper so we can get legislation to the floor,” Ryan told reporters after the meeting. He argued that if rank-and-file lawmakers were to go ahead with forcing immigration votes, the resulting measure would not become law.
“Our members realize it’s better to have a process that has a chance of going into law than not,” Ryan said.
But it remained unclear if the negotiations on a compromise would satisfy Republican lawmakers who are eager to see the House address the fate of the Dreamers. They have been shielded from deportation by an Obama-era program, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, that President Donald Trump moved last year to rescind.
The showdown would come at a critical time for House Republicans, before what is expected to be a difficult midterm election. A vote on legislation deemed “amnesty” by the party’s right flank could demoralize conservative voters and depress Republican turnout in November. But the failure of moderates to win support for the Dreamers could harm their re-election chances in the districts most targeted by the Democrats.
“I think this was a very useful exercise, and I would have preferred that this occur six months ago,” one of those targeted members, Rep. Leonard Lance, R-N.J., said after the conference meeting. Lance is among nearly two dozen Republican lawmakers who have signed the discharge petition.
Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, emerged from the meeting to tell reporters that the discharge petition would be delayed as Republicans tried to negotiate a compromise bill.
“The discharge petition actually did put pressure to get us to where we are today,” McCaul said. “But I don’t think there’s any will in the Congress to move forward with the discharge petition.”
But a senior House Republican leadership aide conceded that in all likelihood the petition could reach the required number of signatures. Another Republican aide said moderate members would continue negotiating with party leaders and the conservative House Freedom Caucus, while keeping the discharge petition as a backstop.
“I guess we’re at the ‘family meeting’ stage, still,” Rep. Mark Amodei, R-Nev., who has signed the petition, said after the closed-door gathering. “If there’s three or more people in that room that go, ‘OK, I love family meetings, but I also want to be able to vote,’ then we’ll see.”
Coming up with a compromise immigration bill in a matter of days is a tall order. The Senate has already shown the difficulty of trying to find a solution for DACA, rejecting a series of measures in February.
House Republicans are particularly divided over whether to provide young unauthorized immigrants with a path to citizenship, who would be eligible for such a path and the mechanics of getting to citizenship if legislation provided the path.
“Ultimately, what it comes down to is the citizenship question and how you deal with that,” said Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., chairman of the Freedom Caucus.
Denham said a proposal had been put forth that would create a special visa that would be available to DACA recipients, but he said he was waiting to see that plan in writing. And Republican leaders face a challenge in selling any kind of compromise across their conference, where views on immigration vary considerably.
Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, an immigration hard-liner, warned: “It’s just surrealistic that I’m standing in here listening to member after member talk about everything except what they’re doing, which is destroying the rule of law. When you reward lawbreakers, you’re destroying the rule of law.”
On the flip side, lawmakers eager to secure protections for Dreamers are having their patience tested.
“Folks are fixed in their position, and it’s just a mystery still whether we will be able to get the signatures or they will bring some proposals to the floor,” said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., who has signed the discharge petition. “Some of us are really frustrated to not be able to have a vote.”
Ros-Lehtinen said the prospects of gaining three more signatories was growing frustrating.
“We’re three signatures away, but it’s like the last two minutes of a football game: It just goes on forever,” she said.