Policy

House GOP’s Fragile Immigration Deal Faces Uphill Battle

‘Hopefully, every time there’s a compromise, everyone can claim some victories’

Immigration rights activists chant during their May Day march in Washington to the White House to voice opposition to President Donald Trump's immigration policies on May 1, 2017. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Republicans were quick to congratulate themselves Wednesday after brokering a fragile path forward on immigration legislation and avoiding — for now — a bruising civil war less than six months before the midterm elections.

“This is an effort to bring our caucus together, our conference together, on immigration,” Speaker Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin told reporters. “I’m very pleased with our members.”

Lawmakers from the party’s moderate wing, some being targeted for defeat by Democrats, struck an optimistic tone. They have sought to use a discharge petition to force votes on legislation that would have split the GOP conference in an effort to grant legal status to undocumented immigrants known as Dreamers. 

“Hopefully, every time there’s a compromise, everyone can claim some victories,” said Florida Rep. Carlos Curbelo, who is running for re-election in a district won by Hillary Clinton. Curbelo and his allies put their insurgency effort on hold late Tuesday after reaching an agreement with leadership and conservatives, though details are still being worked out.

Republicans played down concerns that the conference’s newly found unity ultimately reduces the chances that a deal to protect so-called Dreamers from deportation can become law. Democrats control enough votes in the Senate to block most legislation from advancing, meaning that any House bill with a shot of making it to President Donald Trump’s desk would have to be bipartisan.

“We’ve got to go for the good and maybe not the best. I mean that’s this process,” said Rep. Dennis A. Ross of Florida. “Sometimes it kills us. Sometimes it moves us along and gets us over to the Senate.”

Moderates led by Curbelo and Rep. Jeff Denham of California had been working with Democrats to secure votes on four separate immigration proposals, including a bipartisan measure that stood a good chance of passing. Now, the House will only vote on two bills: a conservative measure by Judiciary Chairman Robert W. Goodlatte and the yet-to-be-drafted compromise bill.

It’s unclear exactly what the compromise measure will contain. Rep. Scott Perry, R-Pa., a member of the hard-line Freedom Caucus, said he expects most of its interior enforcement and border security provisions to be lifted from Goodlatte’s bill and combined with a new visa for Dreamers.

Denham, who also represents a district won by Clinton, waved off the suggestion that including elements of Goodlatte’s proposal in a compromise bill would come at the cost of crucial Democratic support.

“We hope that a number of Democrats will be with us on this,” he said.

But Democrats who signed the discharge petition in the hopes of reaching a bipartisan deal seemed to think the compromise bill would be too much for them to stomach.

“Based on what we know of this compromise I’m not optimistic that it has more than the 39 votes Trump’s proposal received in the Senate,” said Rep. Pete Aguilar, D-Calif. “So at the end of the day, what are we really doing here? It’s unfortunate that the path to a bipartisan discussion was thwarted a bit.”

Moderates also rebuffed the idea that their bill would lack support among Republicans simply because conservatives would rather support the Goodlatte bill, which mostly aligns with their stance.

“If they do [vote against it] they’re going to be voting against border security,” said Rep. John Katko, R-N.Y., co-chairman of the moderate Tuesday Group.

House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi said late Tuesday that Republicans “would get a fight” if they tried to use Dreamers as leverage to pass legislation in support of Trump’s enforcement and border security agenda.

“Protecting Dreamers stands on its own merit,” Pelosi said in a tweet.

Democrats are also likely to object to anything in the bill that would impose new limits on legal immigration or end the diversity visa lottery program that benefits people from countries with low rates of immigration — two of Trump’s “four pillars” he says are required for a deal. Denham and Curbelo indicated the bill would include some changes in those areas.

More votes in July

GOP leaders managed to neutralize the threat of the discharge petition by promising some members a separate vote on legislation dealing with immigrant guest workers. Some Republicans, concerned that employers in their agriculture-heavy districts are struggling to find workers, had considered signing the discharge petition in order to get immigration legislation moving.

One such lawmaker, Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., decided not to sign the discharge petition because of the agreement to vote on the compromise bill this month and the guest-worker bill in July. His district includes seasonal industries that depend on foreign labor.

Newhouse said some members wanted guest-worker provisions in the compromise legislation but acknowledged “the more comprehensive you make something, the harder it is to keep support for the whole bill together.”

“It just seems to get too heavy,” he said.

The guest-worker bill is also expected to make mandatory the use of E-Verify, a computerized database used by employers to check their workers’ immigration status.

Goodlatte told the conservative Republican Study Committee on Wednesday that he would remove the guest worker and E-Verify provisions in his bill and use them for the basis for separate legislation to be taken up in July, lawmakers said. He told reporters his revised bill would be ready “soon” but wouldn’t confirm it would drop the guest worker and E-Verify provisions to move in a separate bill in July. 

Ross, who held off on signing the petition after leadership promised him a vote on guest workers, suggested that deferring a vote on E-Verify and guest workers could be a useful strategy for shoring up conservative support for the compromise bill.

“I don’t think they’re going to get their E-Verify that they so desperately want,” said Ross, when asked why conservatives would vote for the compromise. “And you don’t get E-Verify without guest worker and that’s in the month of July. And so it’s somewhat of a quid pro quo.”

But some conservatives are concerned about separating E-Verify from the two immigration bills the House will consider this month. Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows, R-N.C., suggested the issue could pose problems moving forward.

“With E-Verify in it, it’s harder to get moderates. With E-Verify out of it, it’s hard to get conservatives,” he said. “Just being totally honest I’m not sure how many go one way or another based on it. Do you pick up more moderates than you do others?”

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