Political News

‘We’re Close,’ but House Progress on Immigration Appears Stalled

Posted June 12, 2018 10:15 p.m. EDT
Updated June 12, 2018 10:20 p.m. EDT

WASHINGTON — House Republican leaders said Tuesday that they were close to reaching a deal on a Republican immigration bill, even as moderate Republicans appeared to have stalled just short of forcing a vote on separate bipartisan legislation to help young immigrants brought to the country illegally as children.

“We’re close, we’re very close,” said Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, the majority leader, after emerging from a closed-door negotiating session that brought together conservative and moderate factions in the House. He would not provide details.

Moderate Republican lawmakers have been gathering signatures on a discharge petition to force the House to vote on legislation that would protect hundreds of thousands of young people who were brought to the country illegally as children. Those immigrants have been shielded from deportation under an Obama-era program, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, but President Donald Trump moved last year to end it.

To force the votes, the petition needs a majority of the House — 218 signatories — which would require 25 Republican signatures if all 193 Democrats signed on. So far, 23 Republicans and 192 Democrats have signed. Under the rules for such petitions, the moderates would have had to gather the necessary signatures by Tuesday for legislation to be considered this month.

Hope appeared to be fading that they would be able to do so Tuesday evening. A spokesman for one possible Republican signatory, Rep. Dennis A. Ross of Florida, said Ross did not intend to sign the petition on Tuesday.

The lone Democratic holdout, Rep. Henry Cuellar of Texas, said that if Republicans garnered the 25 signatures they need, he would consider signing, which would put the document over the top. But two additional Republican signatures appeared elusive.

Tuesday’s developments came on the heels of a promise last week by Speaker Paul Ryan to draft compromise immigration legislation, setting up a politically risky showdown during what promises to be a difficult election year for Republicans.

Ryan has been loath to have such a debate, fearing it would divide the party just as lawmakers who are trying to defend their seats have to face voters. But leaders of the petition drive, many of them vulnerable and many with large Hispanic constituencies, have argued that to ignore the immigration issue would put them in political peril.

“There have been some critics who say that this could cost us our majority,” Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif., a leader of the signature drive, said in a recent interview. “My concern is if we do nothing, it could cost us our majority. So yes, it’s risky. But it’s the right thing to do.”

In effect, Denham and the moderates forced Ryan’s hand. For the past several weeks, House conservatives have been in intense talks, conducted in Ryan’s office, with Denham and Rep. Carlos Curbelo of Florida, who is also leading the petition drive. But coming up with a compromise on immigration that is acceptable to the vast majority of House Republicans is challenging, given the differing views within their conference.

Among the particularly thorny questions are whether to provide a path to citizenship for DACA recipients, precisely which young immigrants would be eligible for that path and how it would be structured. Any special pathway for DACA recipients, known as Dreamers, could be viewed by conservative members as offering “amnesty” and could prompt a backlash from the party’s right flank.

Another remaining question was what immigration enforcement measures might be included in any compromise bill — a priority for conservatives.

The petition effort got underway in May, when more than a dozen House Republicans defied Ryan by signing on. It is extremely unusual for the party in power to use such petitions; ordinarily they are a tool of protest used by the minority party.

The last successful discharge petition drive came in 2015 when Republicans and Democrats forced a vote to revive the Export-Import Bank, which guarantees loans to overseas customers buying American exports.

The petition revived an immigration debate in Congress that had been all but dead. The Senate spent a week debating immigration legislation in February, and passed nothing. The conventional wisdom was that immigration would become an issue to be fought over during elections. And some lawmakers said there was no urgency, noting that the DACA program is continuing, at least for now, at the direction of the federal courts.

But heart-rending stories featuring young immigrants continue to emerge, such as a recent Des Moines Register article about Manuel Antonio Cano Pacheco, who arrived in the United States at age 3, was forced by immigration authorities to leave his home in Iowa in April, just before his high school graduation, and was killed in Mexico.

The leaders of the signature drive planned to use the petition to bring up four immigration measures: a simple, stand-alone bill supported by Democrats that would offer a path to citizenship for DACA recipients; a hard-line measure supported by conservative Republicans that would beef up border security and limit legal immigration; a bipartisan compromise bill; and a measure of Ryan’s choosing.

Under a little-known rule called “Queen of the Hill,” the House would vote on each measure, and the one that got the most votes would be sent to the Senate, so long as it had a majority. Ryan and his fellow House leaders have been fiercely opposed to the strategy, arguing that it would produce legislation that Trump would not sign into law.