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Republican House member unloads on Paul Ryan in explosive floor exchange

On the eve of two major immigration votes, weeks of hard-fought negotiations took a turn with a heated blowup on the House floor between two lead negotiators.

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Ashley Killough
Phil Mattingly (CNN)
(CNN) — On the eve of two major immigration votes, weeks of hard-fought negotiations took a turn with a heated blowup on the House floor between two lead negotiators.

House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows, a conservative Republican from North Carolina, erupted at House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin over their agreement involving two major immigration bills, saying several times, "I'm done," while pointing in an animated fashion at the top House Republican and raising his voice as their colleagues watched.

The explosion drew widespread attention from inside the chamber and out -- and surfaced once again the long-simmering tension between House Republican leadership and the conservative bloc of lawmakers that has, at times, wreaked havoc on Ryan and his leadership's teams best-laid plans on topics ranging from government spending and health care to the farm bill and -- repeatedly -- immigration.

"The compromise bill is not ready for prime time," Meadows told reporters off the House floor who witnessed the exchange. "I'll leave it at that."

Meadows playfully downplayed the encounter when pressed on why he was yelling at the speaker.

"Oh, no," he responded. "I was passionate."

In his frustration on the floor, Meadows even threatened at one point to sign the discharge petition, a controversial measure that would prompt a series of votes on four competing immigration bills -- including some backed by Democrats. He later told reporters he wasn't considering signing the discharge petition.

GOP leaders have desperately tried to avoid the discharge petition, which is why they have brokered the current deal between the Freedom Caucus and more moderate Republicans -- an agreement set to reach its climax on Thursday with votes on only two bills. One bill appeals more to conservatives -- authored by Rep. Bob Goodlatte of Virginia -- while the other, known as the compromise bill, is favored more by moderates.

The North Carolina congressman argued there were two things he expected to be in the compromise bill that weren't in there, but he refused to go into specifics. Rep. Patrick McHenry, the chief deputy whip, who's also from North Carolina, told reporters after a meeting in the speaker's office Wednesday night that the dispute had been the result of a "miscommunication" between staff and members.

The outcome of the immigration votes was already in doubt, and after the exchange with Ryan, Meadows said he didn't know if the Thursday votes would still occur. "I don't know when the vote is," Meadows said. McHenry would tell reporters a short while later that the immigration votes would still take place Thursday.

Moderate Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo of Florida, another key negotiator who was standing very close to the blowup on the floor, said he thinks critics of the bill like Meadows are becoming wary of growing support for the measure.

"They're starting to get very anxious about it. We've worked very hard to keep our commitments and to be flexible throughout this process," Curbelo said. "I truly hope that colleagues who up to a couple days ago were at the table working with us constructively would not turn around and try to blow up our agreement."

The Trump administration has launched a full-court press in support of both bills. President Donald Trump, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen have each appeared on Capitol Hill in the past two days to urge Republicans to back both bills.

"I don't think anyone thought we would get this far, and apparently that's causing some anxiety," Curbelo said, adding it was fair to characterize the last-minute drama as Meadows and allies moving the goalposts in the eleventh hour.

McHenry disputed that description.

"He's been highly engaged in the process," McHenry said of Meadows to reporters. "We've had a very open conversation, and there are some drafting issues that can be remedied."

He said leadership would try to address the issue Wednesday night.

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