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House GOP Immigration and Leadership Battles Entwined

Results of June attempt to pass immigration legislation will affect current GOP leaders, future candidates

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., speaks alongside Speaker Paul Ryan at the House Republican Leadership Press Conference on Tuesday morning. (Sarah Silbiger/CQ Roll Call)
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., speaks alongside Speaker Paul Ryan at the House Republican Leadership Press Conference on Tuesday morning. (Sarah Silbiger/CQ Roll Call)

House Republicans are on the precipice of a major win or an embarrassing loss on immigration. Either outcome will have lasting impacts for the current leadership team and future contenders for those jobs.

But the prospect of an immediate backlash against Paul D. Ryan’s speakership over anything that could be perceived as an immigration failure appears minimal at best. The House is preparing to take up sweeping immigration legislation the third week of June for the first time since Republicans took control of the chamber eight years ago.

“Nobody I know is pressuring Paul Ryan to step aside,” said Texas Rep. Joe L. Barton, a Freedom Caucus member who prefers a more moderate immigration bill than the rest of the hard-line conservative group. “We just want results. We’ve got three more months. We have the largest majority since the 1920s. There is almost no scenario we’re going to be in better shape next year, probably going to lose some seats in the House. … If we really want to accomplish things, there is no better time than right now.”

Ryan, who is planning to retire at the end of this term, contends — and most Republicans appear to agree — that accelerating the leadership race to replace him in the midst of a midterm cycle in which the GOP is fighting to retain its majority is not in his conference’s best interest.

“Obviously, I serve at the pleasure of the members; those are the people who drafted me in this job in the first place,” the Wisconsin Republican said Tuesday when asked if he was confident of remaining speaker through the election. “But I think we all agree the best thing for us is to complete our agenda and not wedge into the completion of our agenda divisive leadership elections.”

Watch: GOP Leaders Address Reports of Leadership Coup

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Divisive is also the word GOP leaders frequently use to describe the immigration issue. They’ve been struggling since September — when President Donald Trump announced he would end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and called on Congress to pass replacement legislation — to craft a bill a majority of House Republicans would support that could also clear both chambers and make it into law. Republicans have particularly struggled to find a balance between granting amnesty to young undocumented immigrants — something a majority of GOP members say they oppose — and protecting those so-called Dreamers from deportation.

The dynamics of the leadership and immigration battles are effectively the same: Republicans on the far right and the left of the conference are pulling in opposite directions, each hoping the majority of their GOP colleagues who fall more in the middle will join their side.

“We clearly have members at opposite ends of our spectrum who are frustrated with one another,” Ryan said, describing the immigration dynamic. “That can happen in Congress. That can happen in a big majority party.”

In the House Republican Conference, it happens a lot, and it’s up to the leaders to either pick a side or strike a compromise. They usually strive for the latter, since the hard-line conservative Freedom Caucus and the moderate Tuesday Group are both large enough to block partisan legislation if their members stuck together as a bloc. 

On Friday, the 30 Republicans who voted against a GOP farm bill, which failed 198-213, were roughly split between conservatives and moderates.

Ryan and his top two lieutenants, who are also potential contenders to replace him — House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Majority Whip Steve Scalise — deflected assertions that the farm bill’s defeat reflects poorly on their leadership. They instead point to GOP immigration disagreements that are in the process of being resolved and Democrats’ opposition to the farm measure as the reason for that defeat.

House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, however, called it “another indication of the Republicans’ inability to govern, their divisions, and their dysfunctional approach to governing.”

Public unity

The leadership team has remained publicly united in denying an ongoing trickling of reports in recent days questioning Ryan’s standing as speaker and asserting that McCarthy was in talks over a potential coup to grab the gavel now. 

Their positioning is backed up by public comments from most House Republicans. Several have said they’ve heard no talk among their colleagues about pushing Ryan to step down early.

“I don’t hear anybody in the conference saying that,” Alabama Rep. Bradley Byrne said. “And I don’t feel that way myself. I think anybody can be speaker and we’d have this problem. … You’ve got people who are trying to insist on their own way on a very difficult issue, and you’re not going to get your own way on a very difficult issue like [immigration].”

Ryan “is right now the best person to pull everyone together,” New York Rep. Chris Collins said. “We had a hiccup on the farm bill, but if we get it passed in a couple weeks, that’s all that matters.”

Even Freedom Caucus members who were involved in the effort to sink the farm bill over the unresolved immigration dispute are not directly blaming Ryan.

“At this point, it’s incumbent upon all members to come together to make us an effective conference,” caucus Chairman Mark Meadows said. “If you judge somebody only by their speakership, you missed another 238 members.”

The North Carolina Republican said he doesn’t see a scenario in which Ryan vacates his post before the midterms. 

“I think he’ll be here until November when we have the elections for the new speaker and at that particular point there will be an all-out race for speaker,” Meadows said. “And I don’t see anything changing between now and then.”

That “all-out race” is likely to include Rep. Jim Jordan, the Freedom Caucus’s founding chairman. The Ohio Republican has previously said he would consider running in a hypothetical speaker’s contest, but he made a somewhat stronger statement of interest Tuesday. 

“If and when there’s a race for speaker, I expect to be a part of that discussion,” Jordan said.


One Freedom Caucus member, Rep. Paul Gosar, said he thinks Ryan should leave Congress sooner rather than later. The Arizona Republican predicted Ryan would’ve already vacated his post if McCarthy, whom Ryan has endorsed to succeed him, had the votes to be elected speaker now.

“We’ve got a problem,” Gosar said, citing a discharge petition from moderate Republicans that would trigger a series of four immigration votes under a so-called queen of the hill rule, with the most popular provision passing. Many members cite leadership not following through on its promises to explain the discharge petition’s circulation. 

“You run out of wolf when you keep crying,” Gosar said. 

Gosar said “there’s plenty” of other members who are fed up with the process and ready for Ryan to go. He predicted more of a public push will materialize after the Memorial Day recess. 

One member outside the Freedom Caucus who had previously made public comments suggesting Ryan should step aside early to avoid a leadership vacuum created by his lame-duck status was Rep. Tom Graves

The Georgia Republican was seen on the floor Tuesday talking with Ryan’s chief of staff Jonathan Burks and Nebraska Rep. Jeff Fortenberry.

Graves said afterward that their conversation was about the appropriations process.

“No palace intrigue,” he said. 

As to whether he still thinks Ryan should resign early, Graves said his viewpoint hasn’t changed but wouldn’t repeat his previous comments. 

“I have really nothing new to say,” he said. “I know that Paul is going to do what he thinks is in the best interest of the conference.”

Discharge dynamics

The Freedom Caucus and GOP leadership are united in their goal of blocking the moderates’ immigration discharge petition. The winner-take-all queen of the hill process is expected to produce a bill supported by a majority of Democrats and a minority of Republicans. 

Jordan and other conservatives said they don’t oppose the discharge petition tool — they used it during debate last year to push for a vote on a bill to repeal the 2010 health care law — but said it shouldn’t be used by the majority party to push legislation that goes against what most Republican voters want. 

California Rep. Jeff Denham, one of the moderates pushing the discharge petition, said he expects to get the requisite 218 signatures this week. At press time, there were 203 signatures, including 20 from Republicans. Michigan Rep. Fred Upton said he expects more Republicans to sign the petition Wednesday. 

GOP leaders are still negotiating with moderates and conservatives to set up immigration votes that could stop the discharge petition from moving forward, but policy and procedural hang-ups remain. A conservative immigration bill by House Judiciary Chairman Robert W. Goodlatte is expected to get a vote the third week of June and potential changes to that, as well as an alternative measure, are under negotiation. 

If those negotiations break down and the discharge petition goes through, some blame could be thrown at Ryan and his leadership team. But few are prepared to go there yet. 

“It’s not the speaker’s fault if it gets through,” Freedom Caucus member Tom Garrett of Virginia said. 

The real implications of the immigration debate — whether positive or negative — are likely to fall more on Ryan’s potential successors like McCarthy, Scalise and Jordan than on Ryan himself. 

Right now, most of the negotiations have been focused on appeasing the fringes of the conferences and some others feel left out. It’s akin to the health care debate, in which a small group of members holding things up were the ones who got to be in the room for the negotiations, Byrne said. 

“There are a number of us that are getting tired of not being part of that conversation,” the Alabama Republican said. “And I think that’s hurting the leadership more than anything else right now. Obviously, we’re going to have leadership elections in the fall. That frustration is going to play in that election if leadership doesn’t watch out.”

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