The House Republican Conference was in disarray Thursday over immigration as GOP leaders delayed a key vote on a compromise bill and members began to cast blame for the measure’s predicted defeat.
The events escalated a drama that had begun Wednesday as GOP leaders struggled, yet again, to unite their fractured conference.
This latest GOP melodrama over immigration is a self-inflicted wound, brought about moderate Republicans who wanted to force the House to vote on an issue that has long divided the GOP conference.
The moderates agreed to hold off on a discharge petition that would have forced four immigration votes — two on bills supported more by Democrats and than Republicans — to negotiate a compromise with their GOP colleagues.
The measure they came up with during weeks of negotiations with GOP leaders and conservatives from both the House Freedom Caucus and the Republican Study Committee — dubbed the compromise bill — was scheduled for a vote Thursday evening.
Watch: Ryan Says He Doesn’t Know if an Immigration Bill Can Pass
But GOP leaders delayed the vote until Friday, saying members still had questions about the bill that need answered. They planned to hold a conference-wide briefing late Thursday afternoon.
“We’re going to continue working on making sure members get answers to the questions that they’ve got,” House Majority Whip Steve Scalise said.
The real reason for the delay probably has to do more with the level of support the bill has. Several conservatives have said they won’t vote for it and predicted it can’t pass.
Even Speaker Paul D. Ryan told reporters Thursday he didn’t know if House Republicans could pass any immigration bill in response to a question that was about more than just the two bills the House was preparing to vote on.
While the exact whip count on the compromise bill is unclear, it is possible more Republicans would oppose it than the 41 GOP members who voted against a conservative measure by Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte.
“I don’t know if they’re concerned about that but I think that’s the case,” Freedom Caucus co-founder Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, said.
Most lawmakers did not expect the Goodlatte bill to get anywhere close to the 193 votes it did, all from Republicans.
If the compromise bill gets less support than the Goodlatte bill, that would be a major embarrassment for GOP leaders, who have said the Goodlatte bill couldn’t pass but the compromise could.
“Initially there was the Goodlatte-McCaul bill, and the votes weren’t there to pass that bill,” Scalise told reporters Wednesday. “Really good policy in that bill, but our objective is not just to have good policy in a bill, it’s to pass a bill and ultimately to get a bill on President Trump’s desk that he will sign.”
“And so we went back to work, working with some of the same people as well as other members of our conference that have differing views on immigration,” the Louisana Republican added. “And we worked closely with President [Donald] Trump to develop a new border security bill.”
That new bill is the compromise bill. To help sell it, GOP leaders brought Trump to the Capitol to speak to House Republicans Tuesday evening.
And on Thursday they had Trump work individual members who remained undecided, while dispatching other administration officials like Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen to the Hill to meet with members.
Variety of concerns
But the whip effort has fallen short amid a variety of concerns. One is that Trump has yet to publicly endorse the compromise bill, although he told House Republicans during their closed-door meeting that he supports the measure and the Goodlatte bill.
Rep. Mike Coffman said it’s a problem that Trump has yet to tell the American people what bill he supports. Whether delaying the vote on the compromise bill results in more votes on it depends on what the president does, the Colorado Republican said.
“If the president wants to weigh in more forcefully behind this one bill and say that this is important to his administration to pass, I think it could make a difference,” Coffman said.
Conservatives still have concerns about a variety of policy provisions, particularly one they say would allow Dreamers, young undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children, to sponsor visas for their parents who illegally brought them to the country.
Why Are the Dreamers Called the Dreamers?
House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows is upset about a provision that negotiators had agreed to put in the bill but was left out. He confronted Ryan about the omission on the floor Wednesday evening in a heated exchange where he was visibly angry.
The provision that Meadows said was agreed to but omitted would prevent administrative agencies from using any potential ambiguities in the measure to make their own interpretations of what the law should be rather than checking with Congress. This is a workaround to a Supreme Court ruling known as Chevron Deference.
Meadows has also taken issue with a drafting error on the so-called trigger mechanism in the bill that would prevent Dreamers from accessing the special visa created under the bill if a future Congress removes or reallocates funding the bill appropriates for a border wall.
The bill as drafted requires Congress to sue to enforce the trigger, Meadows said, noting, “I don’t even know that we have standing to do that.”
With the compromise bill looking likely to fail, members have begun casting blame.
Rep. Jeff Denham, one of the moderates who helped negotiate the compromise, has been particularly frustrated. The California Republican contends that various parts of the agreement negotiators reached on the compromise bill have been broken by the Freedom Caucus.
“The goalposts have continued to move throughout the entire negotiation,” he said. “There’s only one way that this bill goes down, and that’s if the Freedom Caucus votes against the measures that they put into the bill.”
Denham also contends that Meadows agreed to be a co-author of the compromise bill, but Meadows said that “never was” part of any agreement.
Meadows also disagreed that his caucus would be to blame if the compromise bill fails, saying, “I don’t think whether this passes or not hinges just on the Freedom Caucus.“
Denham said he is still focused on passing the compromise bill but he is also preserving the option of returning to the effort to force a vote on bipartisan bills through a discharge petition.
“We are making it very clear that all parliamentary procedures are still on the table moving forward,” he said. “We are going to get an immigration agreement done.”
Bridget Bowman contributed to this report.