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House GOP Immigration Negotiations Reach Critical Juncture

Disagreement over legal status for Dreamers remains key sticking point

House Republican leaders are leading a critical two days of immigration negotiations. (Sarah Silbiger/CQ Roll Call file photo)
House Republican leaders are leading a critical two days of immigration negotiations. (Sarah Silbiger/CQ Roll Call file photo)

House Republicans head into a critical two days of immigration negotiations Wednesday without a clear way to resolve a years-long, intraparty policy disagreement over the legal status of so-called “Dreamers” as the threat of a discharge petition lingers in the background.

GOP leaders are still in talks with members of their conference about how best to protect the young undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children — roughly 700,000 who have been sheltered from deportation with temporary work permits obtained through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program — but have yet to figure out how to bridge a divide between moderates who want to offer Dreamers a pathway to citizenship and conservatives who view that as amnesty.

“There was a lot of work over the break but no breakthroughs yet,” Chief Deputy Whip Patrick McHenry said Tuesday night as the House returned from its Memorial Day recess.

The group of lawmakers involved in the negotiations talked over the recess and will have a more formal meeting Wednesday. They’re hoping to have some ideas ready to present to their colleagues when the full GOP conference meets for two hours Thursday morning to discuss the issue.

Watch: Congress Debates Immigration and Appropriations, But Trump’s Focused on North Korea and Mueller

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Moderate Republicans leading a discharge petition to force a floor vote on existing bills — none of which have broad support from all factions of the conference — have signaled that if there’s no agreement reached by Thursday they will put up the last few signatures needed on the petition.

The goal of the negotiations is to develop a bill that most Republicans can support and can become law, a breakthrough that if reached would involve terminating the discharge petition.   

McHenry said “a lot of sticking points” remain but declined to list the divisions that have existed for weeks — if not months and years.

“The contours are what the contours are. There’s no sea change in the last two weeks,” the North Carolina Republican said, acknowledging negotiations this week are pivotal.

Other Republicans involved in the negotiations, like House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, Majority Leader Steve Scalise and Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows, said progress was made over the recess.

“I feel like we’re closer today than we’ve ever been,” Meadows said.

Negotiators have winnowed down the number of issues where there were potential concerns and on the outstanding issues have identified the roadblocks on both sides they need to work around, the North Carolina Republican said.

Incremental but significant

While the progress does appear to be incremental and still far short of a deal, it’s significant because House Republicans have forced themselves into the weeds of a divisive immigration issue they’ve dodged for years.

The last time such serious negotiations were underway was in 2013. The GOP-led House felt pressure after the Senate passed a comprehensive immigration bill that year to see if they could find compromise with Democrats on their own bill but the talks quickly broke down.

The divisive issue remained dormant in the House until last September when President Donald Trump announced he would end DACA with a six-month wind-down designed to put pressure on lawmakers to act.

But federal court rulings preventing the administration from ending DACA took the urgency away and the issue fell to the wayside again until last month. That’s when moderate Republicans filed the discharge petition on a queen of the hill rule that would set up floor votes on four immigration measures, with the one getting the most votes above a majority prevailing. 

The discharge petition is expected to have 215 signatures sometime Wednesday, with two of the three Democrats who have yet to sign it saying they plan to do so. That will leave the petition just three signatures short of the 218 needed for any signatory to be able to call up a vote on the queen of the hill rule as soon as June 25.

The reason moderates want to put up the final signatures this week in the absence of a deal is because of the House rules governing the timing of the discharge petition. Once a petition gets 218 signatures it takes seven days on the calendar to ripen before it can be called up for a vote on either the second or fourth Monday of the month, which is what makes June 25 the earliest date a vote could occur on the discharge petition.

McCarthy said legislation produced through the discharge petition — universally expected to be a bill primarily supported by Democrats and a few dozen moderate Republicans — wouldn’t become law but he’s hopeful the Republican Conference can reach an agreement on legislation that potentially could.

GOP leaders have signaled they won’t endorse any bill that doesn’t have Trump’s support, meaning it will need to include border security provisions that authorize construction of a wall along the southern border, strong enforcement measures and potentially cuts to legal immigration.

Anything House Republicans produce would likely be difficult to get through the Senate, where Democratic votes are needed.

‘Narrow way’

Scalise said Tuesday that he feels Republicans are close to a deal but acknowledged that there are still issues to work through in regards to DACA and the Dreamers.

“I think there’s a narrow way to thread this needle,” the Louisiana Republican said when asked if there is a way to please members like him who say they don’t want amnesty and moderates who say they want Dreamers to have a pathway to citizenship.

“And it also has to involve turning off the discharge petition, because we don’t want a discharge petition,” Scalise added. That’s not the way to solve this problem. It’s not an approach that the president is going to support. Why pass a bill the president wouldn’t support when you could pass a bill that the president will support, so that’s what we’re trying to get hammered out.”

Meadows also said he believes there is a way to resolve the divide over the legal status of the Dreamer population.

“The biggest pushback [from] some of my conservative colleagues is having a special pathway instead of just a pathway that’s just open to all immigrants,” he said. “And so there’s been some real creative thinking on how to address that.”

Meadows said conservatives are not suggesting that Dreamers return to their home countries before being able to apply for a green card.

“Most of us believe that going back home to a country that they’ve never been in is not something that would be appropriate,” he said.

While this week is a soft deadline for a deal because of the discharge petition threat, Meadows said that wouldn’t prevent negotiations from continuing over the next few weeks before the June 25 date when discharge petition could be called up for a vote.

“I fully anticipate that the discharge petition will hit 218 and that doesn’t stop us from reaching a solution,” he said.

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