House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard "Buck" McKeon said Friday afternoon there will be no pathway to legal status for undocumented immigrants who serve in the military attached to this year's defense spending bill.
The decision poured cold water on a behind-the-scenes bipartisan effort, headed up by another California Republican, Rep. Jeff Denham, to include such a provision in the fiscal 2015 National Defense Authorization Act.
Denham said he understands the chairman's decision and predicted there will be opportunities to resurrect his bill, the ENLIST Act.
McKeon, a co-sponsor of the Denham bill, said the timing wasn't right.
“I have reached this conclusion without regard to my views on the underlying policy, but because I do not believe the chairman’s mark should be the original venue for this debate,” McKeon said. “Over the past several days I have heard from members on and off the committee on both sides of the issues. They have made sound arguments and raised valid concerns.”
It was reported Wednesday that Denham was lobbying Armed Services Committee members on both sides of the aisle to push for inclusion of the bill in the base text of the NDAA, set for a consideration in the weeks ahead.
A controversy soon erupted, with conservatives — led by committee member Mo Brooks, R-Ala. — threatening to derail the spending bill if leadership allowed inclusion of the provision.
“It may stop the passage of the NDAA by bringing in an extracurricular issue that is wholly unrelated to national defense and national security,” Brooks told reporters on Friday prior to McKeon’s announcement.
Brooks said he had spoken with McKeon about the issue and, without elaborating, said he was “comfortable with [McKeon’s] position.”
Speaking to journalists following the release of McKeon’s statement, Denham said he understood the concerns about using the NDAA as a vehicle to force a vote on ENLIST.
“I think there’s some concern over the overall NDAA bill and the strength of our nation that they would not want to let any single issue take down the entire bill,” Denham said. “So while there is a great deal of support, I think that is the concern.”
Meanwhile, Denham is not out of options, and the issue will certainly present itself again later this spring.
Soliciting HASC members’ support could culminate in one of them offering the bill as an amendment during the panel markup. Including McKeon, there are 11 lawmakers who sit on the panel who also happen to be co-sponsors of the bill, seven Republicans and four Democratics.
But in CQ Roll Call conversations with six of those seven Republicans, it became clear there was not a member willing to stick his neck out to support the legislation if it meant putting the NDAA at risk of defeat.
“If we can do it through the NDAA, I would not be opposed to that,” said Rep. Joe Heck, R-Nev., on Thursday, adding that he would help push for its inclusion.
“However,” Heck warned, “if adding it to the NDAA jeopardizes overall passage of the NDAA, that would cause me concern.”
“I don’t want it to be in there,” said fellow HASC member and ENLIST Act co-sponsor Rep. Brad Wenstrup, R-Ohio. “I think it needs to stand on its own merits.”
If the committee route doesn’t work, Denham has a third option — the one most likely to come to pass: He could offer the bill as an amendment on the House floor during debate by the full chamber.
The ENLIST Act was made in order for consideration last year, when the fiscal 2014 NDAA was on the floor, but after a jurisdictional scuffle with Judiciary Chairman Robert W. Goodlatte, R-Va., Denham agreed to withdraw the amendment and not seek a recorded vote.
Denham suggested to reporters on Friday morning that he would not be so accommodating this time around.
“I was confident last year that I had the votes on the amendment. I was willing to work with my conference on the issue. I was willing to work through the committee process to work through the issue” Denham explained.
A year later, the bill has not advanced.
“I feel that that is very clear, now, that my bill has complete jurisdiction within the [Armed Services] committee. … I assume that my amendment would be ruled in order and I would expect to have a vote on the issue and I would expect that it would pass. … This time I would not withdraw the issue.”
A vote on the House floor would send a strong message at a time when the chamber is under increasing pressure to act on some rewrite of the nation’s immigration laws before the end of the 113th Congress, but it’s not clear ENLIST has the Republican — or Democratic — support necessary to pass.
It’s also not guaranteed that Denham would have his amendment made in order this year if leadership feared the political repercussions.
“It is very frustrating to see controversy on an issue from members who have never served our country and don’t understand the impacts that immigrants have had on our freedoms and securing our national security,” said Denham, himself a veteran.
Asked to respond to Denham’s remarks, Brooks was unfazed.
“That’s bunk,” he said. “Next question.”
Daniel Newhauser contributed to this report.