House Republicans fall short of deal on immigration as talks continue
WASHINGTON — A dispute over immigration fueled by renegade GOP moderates was hijacked Tuesday by conservatives who prevented their fellow Republicans from sealing a deal that would have brought legislation to the House floor for the first time in years.
Negotiators left a last-ditch meeting short of an agreement, as conservatives balked at a compromise bill that would have given young undocumented immigrants the means to become U.S. citizens and provide billions for President Donald Trump’s border wall.
“This has been a lot of members trying to creatively work through differences to get to an agreement. We’re going to keep working at it because we’re not there yet,” said House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., the No. 3 Republican.
Moderates and hard-liners have been in talks for weeks, trying to find a compromise that could both give the young immigrants permanent legal protections and guarantee improvements in border security and enforcement demanded by conservatives.
Republicans have struggled for years to arrive at any sort of immigration compromise, with pro-business Republicans who support expanding legal immigration and a possible amnesty for those living in the United States illegally sharply at odds with an ascendant populist wing that is fervently opposed to amnesty and wants to curtail any legal influx to protect American jobs and wages.
“There’s ongoing discussions at this point,” said Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., a leader of the conservative House Freedom Caucus. “We’re optimistic that we’ll be able to find a path forward . . . but no deal at this point.”
The standoff raised the possibility that the GOP moderates will defy leadership and try to force votes on a series of immigration bills later this month, an election-year showdown that leaders have warned could cost the GOP its House majority in November’s midterms. The moderates are wielding a rare legislative maneuver, collecting signatures on a “discharge petition.”
Earlier in the day, Scalise warned that said the petition could mean passage of the Dream Act, which would grant permanent legal status to young immigrants who arrived in the United States as minors — a bill that, he said, “threatens national security” because it would not include accompanying enforcement measures that Trump and GOP lawmakers are demanding.
“It does not secure the border,” he said at a morning event hosted by Politico. “There seems to be broad agreement we should secure the border. Well, then, why not go and do it and then address these other problems?”
If three more lawmakers sign the petition by the close of Tuesday’s House session, debate and votes on competing immigration bills — including the Dream Act and more conservative alternatives — would be scheduled for June 25. If not, the debate would have to wait at least another month, and the failure could sap momentum from the discharge push and give Republican leaders the upper hand.
The discharge threat succeeded in sparking negotiations between GOP hard-liners and moderates on a compromise bill, with leaders hopeful that the talks would help defuse the explosive frustrations inside the party ranks.
GOP negotiators spent the weekend reviewing an outline of a potential compromise that would offer “dreamers” a path to permanent legal status and eventually to U.S. citizenship, while also including border security enhancements and cuts to legal immigration programs that are favored by Trump and the Republican hard-liners.
Trump’s decision in August to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that protects hundreds of thousands of dreamers from deportation has added new urgency to the debate — and prompted the moderates to file the discharge petition in May after internal talks went nowhere.
House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and fellow GOP leaders have already pledged to hold a vote on a conservative-backed immigration bill, written by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., and Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul, R-Texas, next week. But that bill has no Democratic support and is expected to fall short of a majority. The question now is whether Republicans can agree on a narrower bill that can pass the House.
Republican moderates have used the discharge petition as leverage, threatening to force votes on bipartisan bills — including the Dream Act — if their more conservative colleagues can’t reach a deal.
The outline of a compromise, according to members and aides who have reviewed it, includes $25 billion for a border wall and cutbacks to some legal immigration pathways. Under one proposal, they said, dreamers would be eligible for visas reclaimed from the cancellation of the Diversity Visa Program, which distributed 50,000 visas a year through a lottery, and by scaling back opportunities for family-based migration.
Scalise on Tuesday said that he was “very hopeful” the discharge petition would not be completed Tuesday evening.
He pointed to the apparent decision by one lawmaker, Rep. Dennis Ross, R-Fla., to step back from his threats to sign the petition. Scalise said he and other members of the Republican leadership had urged Ross not to join the effort.
In a statement, a Ross spokesman cited “productive conversations with House leadership about the need for immigration reform that includes: a strong guest worker program that supports the Florida and national economy; robust increases in border security and enforcement; and a solution for DACA recipients, among other items.”
The spokesman, Kyle Glenn, said Ross has gotten “commitments that leadership intends to move legislation to achieve these reforms.” He did not respond to a question asking whether that meant Ross would not sign the petition.
The discharge backers, however, are targeting several other Republicans. One is Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., who represents a rural district home to thousands of DACA recipients. But signing the discharge petition could mean risking his seat on the powerful House Rules Committee, whose members are expected to act in line with the party leadership. A spokesman for Newhouse had no comment.
Another is Rep. Peter Roskam, R-Ill., who represents a suburban Chicago district that is being heavily targeted by Democrats. A senior member of the Ways and Means Committee who rarely breaks with GOP leadership, he is facing pressure from donors and constituents to sign the petition.
Roskam “will make his decision on the right course based on what’s in the best interest of the dreamers and our nation’s border security,” said spokeswoman Veronica Vera. “He is interested in protecting children from deportation who were brought to the United States without documentation, and he’s interested in increased border security (something more reasonable than a wall).”
Vera would not say whether Roskam would sign the petition.
One Democrat, Rep. Henry Cuellar, Texas, has not signed the petition but hinted on Friday that he would do so after speaking to his party’s leadership and emphasizing his opposition to a border wall.
House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., who has helped lead the discharge effort on the Democratic side, said Tuesday morning that he was “hopeful” the petition would be completed Tuesday night. He said that Republican lawmakers understand that the petition is the only way to guarantee action on immigration.
“Speaker Ryan promised months ago to address this issue,” Hoyer said. “There is no text that reflects an agreement by the Republicans as to where they want to go.”