If Rep. Jeff Denham had known that the immigration debate would grow so politically toxic in a midterm elections year, he never would have let GOP leadership talk him into withdrawing an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act to grant certain undocumented immigrants legal status in exchange for their military service.
A year later, the California Republican says he should "have forced the vote."
"I am somewhat surprised that this has become such a volatile issue, when there was very little concern at this point last year," Denham said Tuesday evening. "We had the votes then. I'm confident we have the votes now." But Denham won't be able to prove that bipartisan support exists for his amendment, the ENLIST Act. As the House prepares to take up this year's NDAA, an amendment ruled germane in 2013 is now being blocked in 2014.
House GOP leaders haven't said publicly what changed their minds in just 12 months, and Denham said he still hadn't heard from Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., as to why he gave his spokesman the green light to tell reporters on May 16 that the ENLIST Act wouldn't receive a vote in relation to the NDAA.
Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, said Tuesday that it was simply "inappropriate" to insert immigration riders into the NDAA, but that "discussions" were ongoing as to whether the ENLIST Act could come to the floor later this year as a stand-alone bill.
It's easy, however, to read between the lines. When the NDAA last came to the floor, the midterms were still more than a year out, and there seemed to be a window of time available to tackle an immigration overhaul, even though some Republican leaders were skeptical then — and now.
This year, the window seems even smaller, with many GOP incumbents fearful that immigration votes could sink their re-election bids, with Majority Leader Eric Cantor himself facing a nerve-wracking primary challenger from the far right.
"Latino voters are repelled and the loud but small contingent of immigration opponents have backed the Republican Party into a corner they do not have the courage to break out of," Illinois Democrat Luis V. Gutierrez said on the House Floor Tuesday morning, warning the GOP it has 18 legislative days before the July 4 recess to get something done, or President Barack Obama will.
If the GOP doesn't act, Gutierrez predicted, former President George W. Bush, "will go down in history as the last Republican president in American history."
Their first stop was the House Rules Committee, which sets the parameters for debate on amendments to legislation on the floor. Getting its direction from GOP leadership, however, the Rules Committee was prepared to doom all immigration-related amendments from the start.
Rep. John Fleming, R-La., filed an amendment with the Rules Committee that's basically the inverse of Denham’s: It would bar the military from enlisting undocumented immigrants while the country is still downsizing its forces. He said the House Parliamentarian had told him the add-on is germane, but acknowledged the process has more to do with whether or not leadership wants to deal with the issue. Denham's ENLIST Act amendment was, too, considered germane last year when he brought it to the floor during the NDAA debate and agreed to withdraw it out of deference to his colleagues who wanted to keep working on the issue.
Fleming said his amendment is still necessary, though, in case the administration decides to take executive action to grant citizenship to immigrants who enlist. The Defense Department is reportedly weighing its options on that front.
“You might think, ‘Well, if Denham can’t put his in then I shouldn’t worry about it.’ Well, the administration ... [is] talking about doing that administratively without even putting it into law,” Fleming said. “If the administration does this unilaterally, then we need an amendment like that so we don’t see people … forced out through downsizing and replaced by an illegal.”
Reps. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., also filed an amendment that would have allowed the DREAMers to enroll in military academies. At another moment in time, Ros-Lehtinen might have had some influence: She happens to sit on the Rules Committee.
Coffman sought floor consideration of an amendment similar to Denham's, one that would allow "the enlistment in the Armed Forces of additional persons who are residing in the United States and lawfully admits for permanent residence certain enlistees who are not citizens or other nationals of the United States."
And Denham, in addition to the ENLIST Act, sought consideration for two additional amendments. One would direct the Defense Department to compile a report on the number of enlistees who have obtained citizenship since 2000. The other seemed the clearest rebuke of leadership's kibosh on ENLIST: It would call for the removal of three immigration-related provisions already included in the NDAA base bill.
"If we want to include immigration in NDAA," Denham said, "then we should also consider the ENLIST act."
Daniel Newhauser contributed to this report.