Updated 10:14 p.m. | The question of whether undocumented immigrants should be allowed to serve in the U.S. military — a thorny debate that has split Republicans in the House — is headed for a risky floor vote.
A vote stripping out pro-immigration language on the issue, which is currently tucked into the fiscal 2016 National Defense Authorization Act, is welcomed by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle who have clamored for a return to “regular order.”
But backers of the defense spending bill, especially GOP leaders, worry a divisive immigration debate could derail passage of the overall defense spending bill. An amendment sponsored by Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Ala., which the Rules Committee Wednesday night deemed in order for floor vote, would eliminate a provision in the NDAA that encourages the Pentagon to study options for enlisting undocumented immigrants in the military.
The provision, offered via amendment by freshman Arizona Democrat Ruben Gallego, was adopted, 33-30, in the early morning hours of a recent marathon markup of the NDAA in the House Armed Services Committee.
Brooks and at least two dozen other House Republicans have suggested they’d vote against the bill if the Gallego language remains and because most Democrats are expected to rebuff the measure in light of a White House veto threat, every GOP vote counts.
But another band of House Republicans are now actively working to keep the amendment in place.
“We’re going to organize as many votes against it as possible. I think it’s important to show where we stand in Congress on amendments like this,” said Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif., one of the House GOP’s most vocal supporters of immigration overhaul legislation.
Denham told CQ Roll Call Wednesday he and some other House Republicans who are also veterans are preparing to send a letter to Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, to urge against adoption of the Brooks amendment.
Denham wouldn’t say just how many members are a part of the effort — “a number of us have whip cards and are actually whipping on this,” he said — but a February vote to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program could provide some indication. On that amendment to an early version of the fiscal 2016 Homeland Security spending bill, 26 Republicans voted “no.” Denham’s effort is about more than just the Brooks amendment, however. It is, in part, push-back against GOP leaders who promised two years ago to work in good faith to facilitate a vote on legislation allowing undocumented immigrants to serve in the military and, in exchange, earn a pathway to legal status. In other words, it would put the force of law behind the Gallego amendment.
In 2013, Denham’s ENLIST Act was made in order as an amendment to the fiscal 2014 NDAA bill, but he agreed to withdraw his request for a floor vote on the language out of respect for leadership and Judiciary Chairman Robert W. Goodlatte, R-Va., who claimed jurisdictional authority over the issue.
By the time 2014 rolled around, immigration had become even more divisive and leadership blocked consideration of the amendment during NDAA floor debate.
This year, Denham offered up the ENLIST Act again as an amendment to the NDAA. But, as expected, and especially with the upheaval over the Gallego language, the Rules Committee opted not to take it up.
Denham planned to make his pitch to Rules on Wednesday night, but had to leave unexpectedly to travel to Philadelphia for business related to the deadly Amtrak derailment. (He also sits on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.)
His absence in front of the panel left Rules Committee Democrats to argue in favor of the Gallego amendment against Brooks and his allies who were on hand to testify.
Brooks, a member of the Armed Services Committee who said Gallego’s provision was inserted into the NDAA bill during a “sleep deprived” portion of the over 18-hour markup, said the language would encourage policies resulting in lost jobs for Americans.
Rep. Dave Brat, R-Va., who ran on an “anti-amnesty” platform last year in his successful campaign to oust then-Majority Leader Eric Cantor in the GOP primary, said “the immigration issue really doesn’t belong in this bill in the first place.”
Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, suggested the Rules panel opt not to put the Brooks amendment on the floor at all and instead handle the matter inside the committee using its special privileges.
Getting rid of the Gallego amendment before the NDAA hits the floor, King argued, would have avoided a nasty fight.
“Avoid a national debate that’s going to divide Americans,” King said.
Dealing with the matter at the committee level, of course, also would have precluded the possibility that the Gallego amendment would end up staying in the base bill, but King didn’t acknowledge this was part of his line of thinking.
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