5 Things to Watch in House Immigration Debate This Week
Trump, leadership, conservatives, moderates, and the Senate are all key players to watch in this GOP exercise
House Republicans this week will vote for the first time in their running eight-year majority on the divisive issue of legalizing certain undocumented immigrants.
The House is expected to hold Thursday votes on two immigration bills that address the legal status of so-called Dreamers, young undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children, as well as border security and enforcement.
One bill is a generally more conservative measure by House Judiciary Chairman Robert W. Goodlatte that Republicans have tried for months to coalesce behind. It still appears to lack enough support to pass, with many moderate GOP lawmakers opposed because they don’t feel like it does enough for Dreamers.
The second bill is more of a compromise measure, as it was negotiated by moderate and conservative Republicans representing a broad cross section of their conference. Those negotiations came together under the threat of a discharge petition that would have forced a winner-takes-all series of immigration votes that would favor proposals supported by a minority of Republicans and a majority of Democrats.
Most — if not all — Democrats are expected to oppose the two GOP bills. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi is urging her caucus to reject both.
Watch: How Trump’s Immigration Policy Could Threaten GOP Legislative Agenda Ahead of Midterms
As the House Republicans’ intraparty debate unfolds, here is one important person and four key groups to watch.
President Donald Trump’s upcoming visit to Capitol Hill on Tuesday evening represents a first step for House Republicans trying to win enough support to pass the compromise measure.
The negotiators used Trump’s four pillars — fixes for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and border security and cuts to family-based immigration and the diversity visa lottery program — in crafting the compromise bill so that it could win the president’s support.
Trump aides signaled he would support the legislation, but on Friday he said he wouldn’t sign it, throwing a wrench in House Republicans’ plans.
The White House walked backed Trump’s comment hours later. But some House Republicans — hearing complaints from outside conservatives that the measure was tantamount to amnesty, which is anathema to them — want to hear from the president himself.
That’s why House GOP leaders asked Trump to speak to the conference Tuesday at 5:30 p.m., just ahead of a vote series during which the whip team will count votes for the compromise plan.
Trump is expected to express support for both the Goodlatte bill and the compromise measure, but it’s unclear how many hesitant Republicans he will sway either way.
The White House and conservatives have started calling the compromise bill the “the leadership’s bill” and “the speaker’s bill,” respectively, in an apparent effort to avoid taking ownership of legislation that may ultimately fail.
For their part, GOP leaders have remained positive when speaking about the compromise bill but have’t yet made any significant effort to promote it. Speaker Paul D. Ryan wouldn’t even commit to continuing efforts to refine the bill should the whip count for the measure come up short.
“We won’t guarantee passage,” the Wisconsin Republican said last week. “We don’t know the answer.”
If the House fails to pass both bills, members may point to Ryan’s lame-duck status as the reason. Some have already argued that the leadership vacuum created by his pending retirement led to the discharge petition that put Republicans in this tough spot in the first place.
Whether House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Majority Whip Steve Scalise support the compromise bill and try to convince their colleagues to support it will be noteworthy given they both aspire to be speaker one day.
Ryan had more support from the conference when he ran for speaker than either McCarthy or Scalise hold now — but Ryan was still nearly hamstrung by his support for immigration overhaul efforts in the past.
He promised conservatives he would never bring an immigration bill to the floor that lacked the support of a majority of the GOP conference, and he has followed through on that. Both bills the House is voting on this week are expected to have support from a majority of Republicans, but should either fall below that threshold there will be swift pushback by conservatives inside and outside Congress.
Trump’s support for the compromise bill would provide GOP leaders some cover, but the more votes they can get for the measure, the better off they’ll be.
If the compromise bill fails, it’s likely to be because of conservatives in both the House Freedom Caucus and the Republican Study Committee that have expressed concerns about the measure. Most members of the two groups favor the Goodlatte bill, which they see as stronger on enforcement.
Conservatives who helped negotiate the compromise — such as Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows, Republican Study Committee Chairman Mark Walker and Rep. Jim Jordan, a past chairman of both groups — have not even committed to backing it.
Jordan is eyeing a bid for speaker should House Republicans retain their majority. He could vote against the compromise measure to remind his colleagues he’s more conservative than McCarthy and Scalise.
Whether the Freedom Caucus and RSC leaders decide to support the bill will have some sway over how many of their caucus members ultimately vote for it.
But either way, conservative defections on the compromise bill could be significant, especially with several who feel the special visa the bill creates for Dreamers and other young immigrants amounts to amnesty.
Moderate Republicans are the reason the House is finally having votes on immigration, since they used the discharge petition to force the matter.
Yet they’re also the group that may walk away from this week’s debate with the most bruises.
The Goodlatte bill is the vehicle moderates used to file the discharge petition, meaning a vote on the measure would kill the petition. If the compromise bill also fails, moderates will have given up their leverage and gotten basically nothing.
While they could start a new discharge petition, it’s unclear if they could gather the same amount of support they had on the existing one — 23 Republicans and 193 Democrats. They still needed two more Republicans to sign on to activate the petition.
Even if moderates got to the required 218 signatures on a new petition and used it to pass bipartisan legislation, it won’t shield those in tough re-election races who vote for the compromise measure from Democratic attacks.
If, somehow, legislation passes the House, all eyes will be on the Senate to see if they take it up or an alternative measure. Trump will likely pressure the chamber to do something, even though they already held their own immigration debate in February and failed to pass three different bills.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said he’d see what the House can do but has offered no commitments about further Senate action.
Some House Republicans believe if they’re successful in passing legislation, it will change the Senate’s calculus, providing them an incentive to find something they can pass so the chambers can go to conference. But that is a lot of wishful thinking in the midst of a midterm election season.
Senators are likely to face questions this week about the House GOP compromise, especially over their views on a provision that would allow children and parents apprehended at the border to be detained together. Senate Democrats have a standalone bill to keep families together that their full conference is supporting. Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn and Sen. Ted Cruz, both Texas Republicans, are offering separate standalone bills.
In the event the House fails to pass anything, Senate Republican leaders are likely to ignore the broader immigration debate. But both the House and Senate will continue to face pressure to do something about the separation of children from their parents at the border.