A bipartisan coalition came close Thursday to protecting immigration-related language in the fiscal 2016 National Defense Authorization Act — but not close enough.
A 221-202 vote on an amendment, offered by Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Ala., stripped a provision in the underlying bill encouraging the Pentagon to study options for enlisting undocumented immigrants into the military in exchange for a pathway to legal status.
All 182 Democrats voted "no," joined by 20 Republicans. Passage of the Brooks amendment will prompt a sigh of relief from GOP leaders, who feared its failure would put the entire NDAA bill in jeopardy — at least 25 House Republicans said their support for the measure was contingent upon removal of the amendment adopted during the markup in the House Armed Services Committee, offered by freshman Democrat Ruben Gallego of Arizona. And with almost every Democrat prepared to vote against final passage, every GOP vote counted.
Plenty of Republicans likely voted for the Brooks amendment out of loyalty to leadership and to protect the NDAA bill. One such member was Rep. Joe Heck, R-Nev., who typically supports similar immigration measures but also sits on the Armed Services panel.
But while passage of Brooks' amendment ensures smooth sailing for the NDAA when consideration wraps Friday, the vote could have reverberations for the rest of the 114th Congress.
The vote showed conservatives are still resolved to fight any pro-immigration measure that may arise, especially as it relates to fighting President Barack Obama by proxy.
"The House should not take action to legitimize the president's unconstitutional overreach on immigration," proclaimed Judiciary Chairman Robert W. Goodlatte, R-Va., referring to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that protects from deportation the certain undocumented immigrants who would be eligible for military enlistment in some future scenario.
It also showed the extent to which mainstream GOP lawmakers still have little to no appetite to wade into the politically treacherous waters of immigration.
"Remember, the Gallego language does not change any laws, it is a sense of Congress," said Armed Services Chairman Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, during floor consideration of the amendment. "A sensitive debate where there could be no resulted changes ... only distracts from the essential provisions in the bill that do matter."
But perhaps more than anything else, the number of Republicans who voted "no" on the Brooks amendment sent a strong signal that perhaps the tides are shifting in the chamber on the issue.
Leading up to the suspenseful Thursday evening vote, a contingent of House Republicans were actively whipping colleagues to keep the Gallego amendment in place. Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif., appeared to be leading the effort to rally fellow GOP lawmakers, while Gallego told reporters earlier in the day Thursday he was actively coordinating with members on the other side of the aisle — a significant development for two parties long considered fundamentally divided on the issue.
"We're doing a little texting," Gallego said with a smile.
Denham also teamed up with two other House Republican veterans, Mike Coffman of Colorado and Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, to circulate a letter urging "no" votes on the Brooks amendment in the final hours before the vote.
"We are opposed to the amendment in part because it would seek to perpetuate the current disparate treatment of non-citizens who seek to enlist in the Armed Services," Denham, Coffman and Kinzinger wrote in their letter, obtained by CQ Roll Call. "Voting 'yes' on this amendment would run counter to the tradition of immigrant service that is as old as our Republic."
Denham opted not to speak in opposition on the House floor during amendment debate on Thursday, but Rep. Jamie Herrera Beutler, R-Wash., expressed similar sentiments to those in the letter.
"I do support the ability to earn citizenship," she said, "and if a person who has the courage and conviction to take the oath and join our nation’s warriors to defend you and I, what more can they do to prove their allegiance?"
Denham, Coffman and Kinzinger were among the 26 House Republicans who voted "no" on an amendment to an early iteration of the fiscal 2016 Homeland Security appropriations bill to defund DACA. Herrera Beutler was not one of them.
But her support this time around regarding a legal status pathway in exchange for military service showed an openness that is sure to hearten immigration overhaul advocates, especially Denham, who has been trying for years to get a vote on the "ENLIST Act," which would basically put the force of law behind the Gallego amendment.
On Wednesday, Denham wasn't predicting how things would go, but he suggested making a statement was crucial, if nothing else.
"I think it’s important to show where we stand in Congress on amendments like this," he told CQ Roll Call. "I think this amendment is bad for the country."
In addition to Denham, Coffman, Kinzinger and Herrera Beutler, the following 16 Republicans also voted in favor of keeping Gallego's language in the NDAA bill:
Carlos Curbelo of Florida Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania Mario Diaz-Balart of Florida Robert Dold of Illinois Chris Gibson of New York Richard Hanna of New York John Katko of New York Frank A. LoBiondo of New Jersey Tom MacArthur of New Jersey Martha E. McSally of Arizona Dan Newhouse of Washington Dave Reichert of Washington Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Washington Elise Stefanik of New York Fred Upton of Michigan David Valadao of California
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