Robert Donachie, DCNF
Congress returns to Washington on Monday after a week long recess and many members have one issue at the forefront of their mind — immigration.
The defining policy issue of the 2016 election cycle, immigration is already shaping up to the be the key policy platform for the Republican Party. The topic is drawing stark contrasts and battle lines between Republican and Democratic candidates for the House and Senate.
Republicans have run in excess of 14,000 campaign ads on television and radio outlining an immigration plan similar to President Donald Trump’s administration leading up to November.
Yet, despite the party’s best efforts and having control of both chambers of Congress and the White House, the GOP is have a tough time finding unity as some Republicans are defecting from the party-line, siding with Democrats and leveraging a petition to force leadership’s hands into bringing a bill to protect between 620,000 – 800,000 young illegal immigrants
A group of Republican members, who are either vulnerable in 2018 or represent districts with large Hispanic populations, with Reps. Carlos Curbelo of Florida and Jeff Denham of California leading the charge, signed onto a discharge petition May 9 with Democrats that would force leadership’s hands in bringing a Dreamer protection bill to the floor for a vote.
The petition needs 218 signatures, and procedurally, it can only be brought forth on the first and third Mondays of a month. The last signatures, which include Democratic House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, were added May 24. Thus far, the petition has 213 names.
Conservative and many Republican members, including the likes of leadership, characterize the discharge petition effort as a push for amnesty. Many of the moderate Republicans pushing the petition are in districts that rely on agricultural labor, have high immigrant populations and some are in slightly red-leaning areas, which is likely why they aren’t following the majority of the Republican conference.
Democrats want something done about the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program that the president and Republicans in Congress have effectively shut down. The party has already made one major play to do just that.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer offered Republicans and the president up to $25 billion in January for the construction of a border wall and enhanced border security in exchange for a pathway to citizenship for Dreamers.
Republicans’ key hangup with Schumer’s offer was that it attempted to extend protections to members of the Dreamers extended families, also known as “chain migration.” Schumer and Senate Democrats decided to roll the dice and shut down the federal government. If the standoff lasted any more than a weekend, all “non-essential” government employees and active U.S. military personnel would have been left working without pay (including troops currently deployed).
While the effort failed and Democrats agreed with GOP leadership’s spending bill, it showed the lengths Democrats in Congress are willing to go in order to get Dreamer protections. Killing the president’s and the majority of the Republican caucus’s immigration platform is also a motivation for Democrats ahead of the midterms.
It is also notable that the Senate voted on four separate immigration bills in February and each of them failed.
Months later and after a number of defining moments, many conservative members and staffers, after roughly a dozen conversations with The Daily Caller News Foundation, say they haven’t forgotten that immigration was the key issue that gave rise to the president and led the Republican party to take control of the House and Senate in 2016.
Members of the House Freedom Caucus (HFC), known to be the most conservative faction of the House GOP conference, want leadership to vote on the Goodlatte/McCaul immigration proposal, which was the compromise bill that came out of immigration discussions in 2017.
Moderates want to push a bill, known as Hurd/Aguilar that would provide some funding for border security but would create a pathway to citizenship for DACA recipients. Goodlatte/McCaul, on the other hand, provides more border security funding, only grants DACA recipients a temporary protected three-year legal status with no pathway for citizenship and includes other features, such as E-verify.
Leadership received a wake-up call in mid May when members of the HFC shot down a farm bill in order to secure a vote on Goodlatte/McCaul, which the conservatives’ claim leadership promised months ago.
Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy tried to sway members last-minute to get on board. Ryan and McCarthy huddled with House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows and co-founder Jim Jordan in the back of the House chamber before the final gavel, but their 11th-hour attempts to sell the bill fell on deaf ears.
The bill failed with members voting 198-213, dealing a decisive blow to leadership. Democrats cheered as the final vote was read out and some members left the chamber entirely confused as to what exactly transpired. Leadership truly thought they had the votes — at least that is what McCarthy told reporters heading into the vote.
Conservative members aren’t backing down and still want leadership to bring Goodlatte/McCaul to the floor for a vote, which they believe will effectively kill the discharge petition.
“We have 25 Republicans doing a discharge petition right now over leadership to get a full Dreamer amnesty bill, which will allow up to 10 million over 10 years to get pathway to citizenship. Our leadership can bring that to an end by simply putting the Goodlatte bill to floor,” Rep. Dave Brat of Virginia, a member of the HFC, told The Daily Caller News Foundation.
“Democrats want DACA fixed and the Goodlatte bill fixes DACA. 700,000 get a pathway out of the shadows, but it also does border enforcement. If you don’t do Goodlattee with the policy embedded in that bill, you’ll have another DACA in five years,” Brat said.
Bratt’s statement is in line with what other members of the HFC say when discussing the discharge petition: that Goodlatte was the initial compromise bill.
It was not the one conservatives wanted but they believe it is crucial to get it to the floor as soon as possible to stymie attempts from moderates and Democrats from pushing for what they deem amnesty.
Leadership is adamant that it has been actively working to stop the discharge petition and that McCarthy and House Majority Whip Steve Scalise are proponents of many parts of Goodlatte McCaul.
Scalise has made a number of public statements since Goodlatte’s rollout that are in favor of the bill and has said the discharge petition would lead to “blanket amnesty.” McCarthy also told reporters that Republicans are not going to push “amnesty” and instead move towards a “merit based” system of immigration.
A number of GOP staffers have expressed their disappointment with leadership and Scalise’s efforts to get Goodlatte on the floor. They told TheDCNF that Scalise is barely whipping the bill, despite promising members on a regular basis that he is putting his weight behind getting the votes.
“For months, they’ve told us they are whipping Goodlatte,” a senior GOP staffer told TheDCNF shortly after the farm bill failed. “Every week, week after week, they keep saying it.”
Sources familiar with the Scalise office told TheDCNF that to characterize the whip’s efforts as slow walking or anything short of a “full-fledged whip operation” is entirely untrue.
“Since the bill was introduced Scalise held six member meetings on the bill, had seven special presentations on the bill before the whip team, and two staff-wide briefings on the bill, reaching nearly every single member office. Scalise has given Goodlatte names of members not yet supportive of the bill for him to work during votes countless times,” the source told TheDCNF.
Still, the farm bill’s failure and the discharge petition have given leadership a number of headaches and the situation appears to be a “lose-lose,” as two GOP aides independently told TheDCNF, because it doesn’t appear there can be any reconciliation between what moderate Republicans want and what conservative members are pushing.
Furthermore, some members argue that the discharge petition is purely a political ploy on the part of moderates to make Goodlatte/McCaul, a bill conservatives view as a compromise, more moderate.
“What is currently going on this week is a lot of folks are probably using that discharge petition as leverage to get us to dramatically weaken the Goodlatte bill so it ends up being a wall funding for DACA. Alternatively, a trade for a full Dreamer bill,” Brat told TheDCNF. “Leadership has made the promise that everything that goes through Congress has to be passed by the majority of the Republican conference. This discharge petition clearly violates that promise.”
The House floor schedule does not include a vote on any immigration proposal for next week. Barring something unexpected happening, a discharge petition, if either leadership allowed it to move forward or moderates broke from their commitment to hold off, would have to wait until June 18.
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