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Conservatives Set for Immigration Fight on Defense Bill

Gallego's amendment supporting the rights of undocumented immigrants to serve in the military has been targeted by House conservatives. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Last week, the House Armed Services Committee voted 33-30 for an amendment to the fiscal 2016 National Defense Authorization Act that would encourage the Pentagon to affirm undocumented immigrants should be permitted to serve in the military.  

This week, more than two dozen conservative House Republicans are threatening to derail the must-pass legislation unless that language is removed. In a May 5 letter to Rules Chairman Pete Sessions, 25 GOP lawmakers have asked the Texas Republican to take out the amendment when his panel meets next week to set parameters for floor debate on the NDAA. The amendment in question, introduced in the Armed Services Committee by freshman Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., would not be backed by the force of law; that is, it would not put a specific program in place to grant stays of deportation to undocumented servicemen and women. That objective would actually be accomplished in the so-called ENLIST Act, a bill Rep. Jeff Denham has been pushing since 2013. The California Republican remains determined to see ENLIST come to the floor for a vote, either as standalone legislation or as an amendment to the NDAA.  

Conservatives contend the Gallego language would run counter to multiple votes the House has taken to defund President Barack Obama's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.  

Co-signers of the letter to Sessions, first reported in Politico, called it "a severe threat to passage of the NDAA."  

"Especially in this time of increased terrorism, our national security should not be threatened by allowing such controversial language on a program we have rejected three times as unconstitutional," they wrote.  

"If the Rules Committee does not strike Rep. Gallego's controversial ACA provision ... we will offer an amendment to strike the language," the members continued. "This controversial immigraiton language greatly increases the risk of the NDAA's failure to pass the House. The Rules Committee has the power, and indeed the duty, to prevent such a threat to our national security."  

Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Ala., a member of the Armed Services panel and one of the House's most vocal critics of immigration overhaul legislation, is spearheading the effort. He has, indeed, filed an amendment with Rules to allow a full House vote on stripping the Gallego amendment, a contingency plan in the event Rules doesn't take care of the job prior to formal floor debate.  

Heritage Action for America spokesman Dan Holler told CQ Roll Call Wednesday that, "conservatives should have every expectation that this gets taken care of in the Rules Committee."  

Rules GOP spokeswoman Jill Shatzen, in an emailed statement, wasn't ready to make any promises.  

"Maintaining the rule of law, especially in areas related to our national security, is an issue of utmost importance to the Chairman," she said. "The Committee is still accepting and carefully considering amendments to NDAA, including the amendment submitted by Congressman Brooks. The Chairman is working with his colleagues and will consider all options available as they relate to this issue."  

Ultimately, Sessions' decision will be largely dictated by the preferences of House GOP leaders, who will find themselves in a familiar predicament: Do they facilitate the removal of the Gallego amendment and risk being criticized as catering to the party's anti-immigrant faction, or do they stand against the contingent and risk failure of the NDAA, which needs Republican votes if Democrats decide not to support it (the White House hasn't issued a veto threat yet but has said it's opposed to the bill as currently written).  

The following Republican lawmakers joined Brooks in signing onto the letter:  

Brian Babin, Texas Lou Barletta, Pa. Gus Bilirakis, Fla. Marsha Blackburn, Tenn. Dave Brat, Va. Jim Bridenstine, Okla. Jeff Duncan, S.C. John Fleming, La. Trent Franks, Ariz. Louie Gohmert, Texas Paul Gosar, Ariz. Sam Graves, Mo. George Holding, N.C. Richard Hudson, N.C. Walter B. Jones, N.C. Steve King, Iowa Doug Lamborn, Colo. Barry Loudermilk, Ga. Randy Neugebauer, Texas Steven M. Palazzo, Miss. Gary Palmer, Ala. Scott Perry, Pa. John Ratcliffe, Texas Lamar Smith, Texas  

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