House Republicans are trying to do in a matter of weeks what they couldn’t accomplish during their nearly eight years in the majority — pass a sweeping immigration bill.
The GOP is facing a self-imposed deadline to move legislation the third week of June that, among other things, would protect so-called Dreamers from deportation. The legal status of those young undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children is in limbo, along with the future of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA.
With federal court rulings preventing President Donald Trump from ending DACA as planned, Congress would seemingly have no immediate deadline to act on immigration legislation. But a discharge petition led by moderate Republicans has created a time crunch in the House. The petition is expected to soon have the 218 signatures needed to force a June 25 vote on a queen of the hill rule that would set up votes on four immigration measures.
GOP leaders want to stop the discharge petition because the queen of the hill process — under which the measure with the most votes above a simple majority would prevail — is expected to produce House-passed legislation that a majority of Republicans oppose and most Democrats favor.
That’s why they’ve facilitated negotiations between moderate and conservative Republicans on legislation the GOP Conference can pass on its own.
But crafting and passing such a bill through the House is likely not going to be enough for moderate Republicans to abandon their petition.
California Rep. Jeff Denham, author of the queen of the hill resolution, said they want the Republican Conference to come together on legislation and for the House to pass “a bipartisan bill that will have the chance of passing with 60 votes in the Senate.”
“Our goal here is to make law,” added Florida Rep. Carlos Curbelo, who filed the discharge petition. “All of you here know I’m not into messaging votes.”
In trying to strike a deal on a bill that can become law, House Republicans face five major obstacles:
The biggest policy divide among Republicans is on how far to go in offering protections to Dreamers.
DACA currently provides Dreamers with temporary work permits. A conservative bill by House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte would simply offer three-year renewals of those work permits, although the Virginia Republican is reportedly open to tweaking the bill so the renewals last six years.
Neither proposal is likely to be enough for moderate Republicans. Curbelo said it is “essential” that there be a permanent solution for Dreamers.
Denham agreed that a permanent fix is necessary to win over moderates and Democrats.
“Extending an unconstitutional executive order at three years at a time is not a solution,” he said, referring to DACA, which former President Barack Obama created by executive order. “We need to have a permanent fix. And a 12-year permanent fix is one we can have both parties agree to.”
Several bills that draw bipartisan support have proposed creating a five-year temporary visa that Dreamers can obtain after meeting certain requirements and then renew for another five years before they would be granted legal permanent resident status. At that time, they could then apply to become citizens, which is roughly a two-year process, Denham said, explaining how the moderates’ proposal amounts to a 12-year permanent fix.
This is something that conservatives have referred to as a “special pathway to citizenship.” House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows said members of his conservative caucus oppose granting Dreamers a special pathway but are fine if they pursue normal procedures to obtain citizenship.
Other conservatives outside of the Freedom Caucus feel similarly about creating a process they believe would effectively amount to amnesty for Dreamers.
Watch: Ryan Talks DACA Solution, Pelosi Says Iran Deal Withdrawal ‘Dangerous’
Rules for debate
Even if moderates and conservatives could bridge their divide on policy questions like how far to go in protecting Dreamers, they would still have procedural disagreements to work out.
Republicans have yet to formally decide whether to take up one base bill and make it open to amendments from different sides of the conference or to bring up two bills — the conservative Goodlatte measure and another one that moderates would support.
GOP leaders have explicitly promised a vote only on the Goodlatte bill.
Denham, however, said Wednesday that he was confident they were headed toward an agreement that would involve voting on two bills under a single rule that would somehow tie them together.
“If we’re going to move forward in a coordinated effort, it needs to be a joint rule,” he said.
But Meadows has ruled that out, saying it would provide people cover to vote against the Goodlatte bill, since they can subsequently vote for the moderates’ alternative.
“I can tell you we’re not going to do a combined rule,” the North Carolina Republican said. “We’re just not.”
Denham said Meadows has not communicated that view to him.
“The only real reason to do a separate rule on Goodlatte is if you’re trying to undermine the entire process,” he said.
While Democratic votes aren’t needed to get a bill passed through the House, they will be needed in the Senate to get a bill to the president’s desk.
House GOP leaders have said they’re negotiating solely within their conference because they don’t see the minority wanting to help them given election-year politics.
“We don’t see any great participation from Democrats in solving this problem, so we’re going to have to fix it ourselves,” Chief Deputy Whip Patrick T. McHenry said.
But the North Carolina Republican admits that’s a heavy lift.
“To craft policy in an election year is really hard,” he said. “To craft immigration policy is even harder. And to do both at the same time is one of the biggest reaches of this Congress.”
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has said Democrats remain open to coming up with a bipartisan deal, but she also acknowledges the court rulings preventing Trump from ending DACA have reduced the incentive for Democrats to talk about anything short of a permanent fix for Dreamers.
The California Democrat refers to the discharge petition that moderate Republicans have pushed and her caucus members have supported as the “compromise position.” She has said that a bipartisan bill by Reps. Will Hurd, a Texas Republican, and Pete Aguilar, a California Democrat, would prevail under queen of the hill.
Pelosi said Thursday that Republicans may be capable of putting together a bill that can get bipartisan support, but “we haven’t seen it yet.”
Republican leaders are insistent upon including provisions supporting construction of a southern border wall and have also talked about other policies related to legal immigration that Democrats universally oppose.
With House Republicans pursuing legislation without Democratic input, it’s likely that anything they come up with would have trouble getting through the Senate — where Democratic votes are needed.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellsaid he won’t waste time bringing up a House-passed bill in his chamber unless President Donald Trump supports it. And even then, the Kentucky Republican signaled he’d want to ensure the bill could get 60 votes to overcome any filibuster threats.
“If it came out of the House and the president said he was for it, I’d obviously consider it,” McConnell said. “What I’m not interested in doing is ... spinning our wheels and getting nowhere.”
If getting Trump’s support for a bill is a requirement for the Senate’s consideration, as McConnell said, that would be no easy feat.
The president is insisting upon changes to existing immigration law that Democrats simply will not support, such as ending the visa lottery system, so-called chain migration and catch and release policies.
“I think it’s time to get the whole package,” Trump said Thursday when asked during a Fox News interview if he would sign a bill that would amount to a mini-bargain on immigration.
Trump also said he would not sign an immigration bill unless it includes funding for “a real wall” and “very strong border security.”
The White House has previously said it supports the Goodlatte bill, but with that measure likely to be revised before a floor vote, it’s unclear if it will ultimately be a product the president is willing to sign.
Meanwhile, moderates are pushing for a more narrow solution that Trump has ruled out.
“The challenge with the Goodlatte bill is it’s a comprehensive bill, which we’ve said for years we would do a step-by-step approach,” Denham said. “When you take something that broad, you end up losing votes on both sides of the aisle.”