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Moderates Punt on Immigration Petition as GOP Goals Drift

House plans to vote on 2 proposals next week, but compromise remains elusive

Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif., arrives at the office of Speaker Paul D. Ryan on Tuesday for a meeting on immigration. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif., arrives at the office of Speaker Paul D. Ryan on Tuesday for a meeting on immigration. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

In the month since moderate Republicans launched a discharge petition to force the House to take up immigration legislation to protect so-called Dreamers, they’ve continuously moved the goal posts on what it is they want to achieve. On Tuesday, they shifted the target again.

The moderates have effectively agreed to drop their discharge petition on the “queen of the hill” rule — which would set up votes on four immigration measures, with the one getting the most votes above a majority prevailing — even though there’s not yet agreement on alternative legislation that can pass the House. 

Republican leaders did commit to hold a vote on two immigration bills next week, a conservative measure by House Judiciary Chairman Robert W. Goodlatte — which GOP leaders have long said lacks the votes to pass the House — and another measure Republicans are still hammering out.

“Members across the Republican Conference have negotiated directly and in good faith with each other for several weeks, and as a result, the House will consider two bills next week that will avert the discharge petition and resolve the border security and immigration issues,” AshLee Strong, a spokeswoman for Speaker Paul D. Ryan, said Tuesday night. “The full conference will discuss tomorrow morning, and we’ll have more to share at that point.”

Moderates are likely to point to the scheduled votes as a win, but it falls well short of what California Rep. Jeff Denham had said they wanted in exchange for not activating the discharge petition. 

Denham said last week that moderates were looking for an agreement laid out in legislative text that GOP leaders had whipped to ensure it could pass the House. Tuesday was the “firm deadline” for getting the discharge signatures, he said, because it was the last possible date they could do so and have a vote on the queen of the hill rule this month.

But in the end there was no agreement Tuesday, only a framework with some policy issues yet to be worked out. And there’s not yet legislative text.

With nothing finalized by the group of just over a dozen negotiators, and with the framework not yet vetted by the full GOP conference, there’s no guarantee the ideas being discussed will ever turn into a bill that can pass the House. So it’s not clear why moderates didn’t activate the discharge petition to keep the pressure on, as they still had procedural maneuvers available to turn it off before it could be called up for a vote on June 25.

After Texas Rep. Henry Cuellar late Tuesday became the last of the 193-member Democratic Caucus to sign the discharge petition, only two more Republican signatures were needed to get to the magic number of 218. The petition has a total of 216 signatures, 23 of which are from Republicans. 

House rules say discharge petitions take seven legislative days after reaching 218 signatures to ripen for floor consideration on the second or fourth Monday of the month. That made Tuesday the last day the discharge petition supporters could get the required signatures needed for a June 25 vote.

The next relevant Monday the House is in session is July 23. But if the chamber moves forward with a vote on the Goodlatte bill next week, it would kill the discharge petition, since that’s the underlying vehicle moderates used for the queen of the hill rule and the petition. 

From the Archives: Ryan Says Gambit to Bring Immigration Bills to Floor Is ‘Big Mistake’

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Conservative bill first

Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows, one of the conservatives who has been in the negotiations, said the agreement reached Tuesday night was for a separate vote on the Goodlatte bill brought to the floor under its own rule, before a later vote on the alternative measure brought to the floor under its own rule. 

Moderates had initially been pushing for a single rule bringing both bills to the floor for debate because they were worried conservatives would vote against the rule on the compromise measure to prevent it from getting a vote. 

Meadows said he anticipates a vote on the Goodlatte bill next week — something the Freedom Caucus has made clear is needed before they’d agree to back the farm bill that is scheduled for a revote on June 22 — even if the compromise measure isn’t ready. 

“We’ve agreed to vote for a rule that would bring up this other bill. And that may be the following week,” the North Carolina Republican said. He predicted it would take at least a week to finalize unresolved issues in the framework and turn it into legislative text.

Meadows doesn’t expect the Goodlatte bill to pass but said a vote would “show us how close we are to actual passage and hopefully how if the other one doesn’t pass we can just amend the Goodlatte bill.”

Asked why conservatives wouldn’t just vote for the Goodlatte bill and against whatever compromise is reached, Meadows said, “Oh, I don’t know. It’s actually — it’s a work in good faith among all parties right now.”

If conservatives do reject the compromise — which remains a realistic if not likely scenario — moderates can just launch another discharge petition. But it’s not clear whether they’d see the same level of support for forcing another series of divisive votes after two failed GOP bills. 

The queen of the hill process would almost certainly result in legislation backed by a minority of Republicans and a majority of Democrats.

Republican leaders would prefer their conference to coalesce around their own immigration solution, even though that’s something that’s eluded the GOP for years. Immigration highlights the wide gulf between conservative and moderate Republicans in a way that few other issues do.

Yet members from both extremes of the conference insist they’re trying to compromise with the other side in an effort to develop legislation that can pass the House and eventually become law.

Shifting strategies

The intraparty struggle has led members involved in the negotiations to privately doubt their colleagues’ willingness to get to a deal while publicly trying to salvage the notion they can.

And the GOP negotiators have laid out public markers only to contradict them weeks, if not days, later as the negotiations unfold. No side has been exempt from “moving the goal posts” — a phrase Republicans often use to point fingers at their colleagues when they fail to reach a compromise among themselves.

Denham initially said he and the other moderates working the discharge petition expected to get to 218 signatures the week before the Memorial Day recess.

As that week came to a close, New York Rep. John Katko told reporters they were giving GOP leaders until June 7 to reach a deal.

June 7 came, and Republicans held their two-hour conference meeting with no agreement ready to present. Denham then declared June 12 as the “firm deadline.”

As that Tuesday deadline arrived and negotiators left a meeting around 6:30 p.m. without an agreement, moderates continued to signal they would possibly reach 218 signatures later that evening.

Florida Rep. Carlos Curbelo, who filed the discharge petition, said talks would continue into the night and that five to seven Republicans were waiting for a status update before deciding whether to sign on before the House adjourned. 

In those final hours Tuesday, there were no further breakthroughs on policy, just a reiteration from Meadows that the Freedom Caucus would only agree to votes on the Goodlatte bill and the alternative under separate rules. The only concession he offered is that his caucus would not vote against the rule on the alternative. 

After the Freedom Caucus had communicated that to the moderates, Denham, Curbelo and Florida Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart had different answers when asked shortly before 9 p.m. whether the discharge petition would get the final signatures that night. 

“No. We are continuing to negotiate,” Denham said. 

Asked if that meant no more signatures, Diaz Balart interjected, “I don’t know about that.”

Curbelo added, “There are people waiting to see how the rest of the night unfolds.”

Law or not?

Negotiators have also wavered on the type of legislation Republicans want to pursue. Denham had initially called for a narrow solution on Dreamers and border security, saying that would have the best shot at becoming law.

Curbelo said on numerous occasions that making law was the goal and that he isn’t into messaging votes.

But neither lawmaker batted an eye last week as GOP leaders decided to set the negotiating parameters around President Donald Trump’s four pillars, which include cuts to legal immigration through the Diversity Visa Lottery program and family-based visas, in addition to a Dreamer fix and border security measures.

The Senate earlier this year had appeared poised to pass a narrow immigration bill focused on Dreamers and border security, but Trump’s insistence on the visa cuts — policy moves Democrats and even some Republicans oppose — complicated the chamber’s negotiations and led to three immigration bills failing on the floor.

The moderate Republicans aren’t the only negotiators who said they were aiming to make law. That’s long been Ryan’s reason for saying he opposes the discharge petition. The Wisconsin Republican believes legislation produced under the queen of the hill process would result in the House passing a bill with mostly Democratic votes and that wouldn’t satisfy Trump.

“We want to advance something that has a chance going into law, where the president would support it,” Ryan said May 16

That stance became muddled when he reintroduced the four-pillar approach last Thursday as having “the most optimistic, plausible chance of getting into law.”

When Roll Call pressed the speaker on how he could make that assessment after the Senate proved they couldn’t pass a bill addressing all four pillars, Ryan dismissed the other chamber as a nonfactor. But any bill would need to pass the Senate before Trump would have the opportunity to sign it.

“If I sat around as speaker of the House and thought about what can the United States Senate do, we wouldn’t do anything,” Ryan said, citing 503 House-passed bills that the Senate has not taken up. “So we don’t spend our time thinking about votes in the Senate. We spend our time thinking about how to get consensus here in the House Republican Conference and getting bills through the House. We’ll worry about those other things later.”

This all comes after Ryan promised Democrats during a February spending showdown that he would bring an immigration bill to the floor after the government was fully funded for fiscal 2018. At one point he said he wanted the House to address the issue by the end of March, but there was not much discussion, let alone action, until moderates filed the discharge petition in May.

Democrats call politics

Amid moderate Republicans’ mixed messaging on the discharge petition, Democrats are calling them out for what they believe are their true intentions.

“To me, they’re not doing it because it’s the right thing to do from a moral, from a public policy point of view,” Illinois Rep. Luis V. Gutiérrez said. “They’re doing it because they’re in tight re-elections.”

Moderate Republicans’ failure to deliver on the discharge petition after promising they’d get the signatures is “inexcusable,” Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesman Javier Gamboa said.

“If vulnerable members like Carlos Curbelo, Will Hurd and Jeff Denham can’t get the job done with their party controlling all of Washington, they have no business serving in Congress,” he said. 

Politics is also the reason House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer thinks Ryan doesn’t want the House to vote on legislation addressing just the Dreamers or on bipartisan legislation from Hurd, a Texas Republican, and Pete Aguilar, a California Democrat. Both those measures would offer Dreamers a path to citizenship.

“He doesn’t want his members to vote against the bill — as they will — that the overwhelming majority of American people thinks makes sense,” the Maryland Democrat said. “That’s why, in my opinion, they don’t want to bring a bill to the floor. It is not that Donald Trump won’t sign it or the Senate won’t pass it. It is that they don’t want their members to be spotted.”

Dean DeChiaro contributed to this report.

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