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House GOP Immigration Talks Raise Questions on Path to Law

Negotiators float cuts that couldn’t pass Senate

Speaker Paul D. Ryan said Thursday he has no regrets about retiring. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Speaker Paul D. Ryan said Thursday he has no regrets about retiring. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

House Republicans say the goal of immigration negotiations is to reach agreement on legislation that could become law, but the ideas floated Wednesday run contrary to that claim.

While the negotiators appear to be seriously attempting to compromise on the legal status of so-called Dreamers, they’re also discussing cuts to legal immigration — like reducing family and diversity visas — that if passed through the House would have no chance of advancing in the Senate.

The talks are also designed to produce an agreement that would get moderate Republicans to stop their discharge petition on a “queen of the hill” rule that is just three signatures shy of the 218 needed. The rule would set up votes on four immigration measures, with the one getting the most above a majority prevailing.

GOP leaders argue the discharge petition process would produce a bill that would not be signed into law, because it would be one supported by most Democrats and a minority of Republicans.

As an alternative, the leaders are trying to facilitate negotiations with members on a bill that Republicans can pass on their own, but moderates have said they won’t stop the discharge petition unless there is agreement on a measure that can become law.

“Our members are earnest and sincere in trying to understand each other’s perspectives,” Speaker Paul D. Ryan said Wednesday morning. “We have a big, big, big swath of views within our conference on this issue, and I really do believe that there is a sweet spot here.”

Key meeting Thursday

Ryan and the GOP leadership team met with roughly a dozen members representing a cross section of the conference on Wednesday afternoon to discuss issues ahead of a two-hour, conference-wide discussion scheduled for Thursday morning.

The attendees included Judiciary Chairman Robert W. Goodlatte, who has a bill that conservatives support but can’t pass without moderates, and Texas Rep. Will Hurd, who has a bipartisan bill that moderate Republicans and many Democrats favor. Reps. Carlos Curbelo of Florida and Jeff Denham of California, who are leading the discharge petition effort, also attended along with Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows and Republican Study Committee Chairman Mark Walker, whose conservative caucuses will need to sign off for any compromise plan to succeed.

The lawmakers cited good progress in the negotiations, but noted they do not yet have an agreement. Several members confirmed that all immigration-related policy matters are on the table for discussion, including changes to the diversity visa lottery program and family-sponsored visas.

Watch: Ryan: Gambit to Bring Immigration Bills to Floor Is ‘Big Mistake’

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“A lot of people are looking at ways to strengthen border security, reform our immigration laws, make sure our immigration system better compliments our economy and obviously the DACA population is very important for some of us. And we’re making progress on all those issues,” Curbelo said.

He was optimistic about the prospects for a deal that has eluded Republicans for months, saying, “We’re as close as we’ve ever been.”

Pennsylvania Rep. Scott Perry, a Freedom Caucus member participating in the talks, said he expects the GOP conference will be presented with a broad framework on Thursday.

“I don’t think there’s a series of options,” Perry said. “I think there’s a potential plan that’s going to be briefed but it’s in a very macro sense.”

Democrats excluded

House Republicans have not included Democrats in their negotiations.

“That I think speaks to the seriousness of how they’re taking this,” said Rep. Pete Aguilar, a California Democrat. “They’re trying to find a 218-vote solution in the Republican conference that doesn’t exist.”

Although some GOP members said they’ve had individual conversations with members across the aisle about the ideas being discussed, GOP leaders have said they’re not expecting any Democrats to support the effort because of election-year politics.

To craft legislation that can become law, Democratic support will be needed to avoid a Senate filibuster. Including Democrats in House negotiations would, however, complicate an already difficult task.

“If you have a good bill that deals with the issues that we need to deal with, that the American people want to deal with, which is, first, enforcement, border security, and also deals with the DACA population, I believe it would be irresponsible, actually, for the Democrats to not vote a bill like this,” said GOP Rep. Raúl R. Labrador of Idaho. The Judiciary Immigration Subcommittee chairman has been negotiating as part of the Freedom Caucus and RSC, offering his perspective as an immigration attorney.

Split on Dreamers

Republicans are deeply divided over how far to go in creating a process under which Dreamers brought to the U.S. as children can permanently and legally remain in the country, but they generally agree on building a wall along the southern border that Democrats oppose. Nearly 700,000 Dreamers have temporary work permit status through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

In broad terms, the disagreement is how to provide Dreamers a process to obtain citizenship that moderates want without creating a “special pathway” for the DACA population that is not available to others who want to become U.S. citizens, as conservatives oppose.

“For us it’s critical that these young immigrants have a bridge on to the legal immigration system,” Curbelo said. “There are many different ways of designing and we’ve been having those discussions.”

Meadows also used the phrase “bridge into a legal immigration system” when describing the “good discussions” on how to prevent the DACA population from being deported.

Exactly how many Dreamers this deal may cover remains unclear.

If the agreement were to include a legal status for more Dreamers beyond those already covered by DACA “then the conservatives are going to want to have more reforms on that family-based, chain migration component,” Walker said. “We’re going to want to tighten that. We’re also going to want to end the visa lottery and even reduce some of the green cards.”

RSC members are also adamant that any agreement must authorize funding for a physical border wall, the North Carolina Republican said.

Talk of cuts to legal immigration, which Democrats flatly oppose, could be a sticking point for moderate Republicans who have suggested an agreement focused on Dreamers and border security measures is the best approach to getting a bill that could become law.

President Donald Trump opposes such a narrow approach and has said cuts to legal immigration, as well as funding for the border wall, must be part of any bill he’d agree to sign.

The diverging positions are why the Senate could not pass an immigration bill in February, even though it considered three separate proposals. And they’re why the House GOP effort is unlikely to result in legislation that can get across the finish line.

“If we can’t come to an agreement, we will file the discharge [petition] with 218 signatures and move forward on a full debate,” Denham told reporters before the Wednesday afternoon meeting.

June 12 is the latest they can get 218 signatures and still move forward with a vote on June 25 because of a House rule saying discharge petitions must ripen for seven legislative days once they reach the signature threshold. Several members have signaled that if the Thursday conference doesn’t produce a consensus, then the moderates would add the remaining discharge signatures later that day.

Dean DeChiaro contributed to this report. 

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