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GOP Chaos, Confusion Ahead of Thursday Immigration Votes

Prospects for passage appeared poor amid haphazard whip effort

 Attorney General Jeff Sessions went to the House to ask Republicans to support the immigration bills the chamber will consider Thursday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
 Attorney General Jeff Sessions went to the House to ask Republicans to support the immigration bills the chamber will consider Thursday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Confusion and chaos ensued Wednesday as House Republican leaders conducted a haphazard whip effort on a compromise immigration bill they planned to bring to the floor the next day. The prospects for the bill passing were clearly poor.

The frenetic feel of the day was similar to March 23, 2017. House GOP leaders spent that day engulfed in conversations with members as they tried to whip support for their bill to partially repeal and replace the 2010 health care law in an effort to vote on the law’s anniversary.

But the votes on the health care bill did not materialize in time, and GOP leaders punted negotiations into the next day before pulling the measure from the floor in an attempt to continue working it. They acknowledged they had unnecessarily set an “artificial deadline.”

Fast forward a little more than a year, and they have set another artificial deadline for votes on dueling immigration bills Thursday.

Watch: Trump Signs Order to End Family Separation Policy, Calls on Congress to Act

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One is the compromise measure negotiated by different factions of the GOP conference in recent weeks that GOP leaders were trying to whip support for Wednesday. The other bill is a measure Judiciary Chairman Robert W. Goodlatte initially introduced in January and has been working to refine over the last few months. 

GOP leaders appear unlikely to shore up enough votes on either immigration bill by vote time, but they showed no signs of planning to delay the votes until a bill can pass, as they did with health care.

Some aspects of the bills overlap, but one of the main differences between the Goodlatte bill and the compromise measure is how they treat the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

The Goodlatte measure would provide the roughly 700,000 young undocumented immigrants covered by DACA with indefinite renewals of nonimmigrant legal status. The compromise bill starts with that as a base, but extends to a wider population of 1.8 million “Dreamers” and provides them with the opportunity to apply for a special visa through which they could apply for permanent legal status and eventually citizenship.

Another difference is that the Goodlatte bill only authorizes the roughly $25 billion in funding for border security and the wall, whereas the compromise bill actually appropriates it. The compromise bill also includes a trigger mechanism to prevent Dreamers from obtaining visas if a future Congress attempts to cut or reprogram the border security funding.

Leadership wasn’t trying to convince members to vote for the Goodlatte measure, which they say they’ve been whipping for months to no avail. Rather, they were pushing members to vote for the compromise bill.

“This is very good compromise legislation that not only solves the child separation issue at the border, it also solves the border, it solves DACA, it solves a lot of our broken immigration parts,” Speaker Paul D. Ryan told reporters Wednesday.

Whip check short

It was no secret that the whip check conducted on the compromise measure Tuesday night — just after President Donald Trump met with the Republican Conference to express his support for the legislation — came up short and that leadership was working to get undecided members on board. 

“Today we have a lot of work to do, which is par for the course for any big bill,” Majority Whip Steve Scalise told reporters Wednesday morning.

If there’s full attendance for the vote, the threshold for passage would be 215 votes. That means GOP leaders can’t lose more than 20 Republicans if all Democrats oppose the bill, which appears likely.

More than a dozen members said they planned to vote “no” or were leaning that way. 

“We really don’t do anything to address sanctuary cities in this bill … to frankly help the federal government enforce the law better, except for more funding on visa overstays,” Freedom Caucus member Warren Davidson said of why he was leaning no. He also cited concerns about the size of the DACA population getting covered and the shift toward a merit-based immigration not being big or meaningful enough.

Also sowing confusion were several members who said they were expecting potential changes to the compromise bill. Others weren’t expecting another update but still hadn’t had time to read the latest version that was released Tuesday evening. 

Family separation fix 

Discussions between GOP leaders and members started during their weekly conference meeting Wednesday morning, before it was clear that Trump would be signing an executive order later that day to address the problem of children being separated from their parents when detained at the border. GOP leaders were pitching the legislative fix for that issue in the compromise bill as a reason to vote for it.  

“We are going to take action to keep families together while we enforce our immigration laws,” Ryan told reporters. 

Rep. Thomas Massie said GOP leaders were using political pressure on the family separation issue to induce members to vote for the bill.

“It’s not the reason to vote for this, but they definitely put it forward as a reason to vote for this,” the Kentucky Republican said, describing leadership’s message as, “Hey, this solves your political problem as well.”

“Can’t you just solve that problem with a very limited, focused stand-alone bill?” Massie asked. “Probably so, and one that would pass the Senate.”

Leaders wanted to vote on the Goodlatte bill to shore up support from the Freedom Caucus for the farm bill the House is scheduled revote on this week. It was also needed to kill a discharge petition moderate Republicans had filed that would have forced a series of votes on legislation that lacked unified GOP support.

But the discharge petition is still two signatures short of being activated, so there’s no urgency on that. GOP leaders might have been motivated to simply get the issue off their plates. 

During the day, administration officials were dispatched to the Hill to continue talks with undecided members. Attorney General Jeff Sessions visited the Republican Study Committee, and later in the afternoon Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen met with RSC and Freedom Caucus members. 

Goodlatte version drama

Nielsen was more than an hour late to that meeting as she waited to participate in Trump’s signing ceremony for the family separation executive order. While Republicans waited for her, they discussed the Goodlatte bill and why they weren’t voting on the most recent version of the legislation.

Goodlatte had drafted an amended version of the bill weeks ago but had never officially introduced the updated version. Leadership had been saying Freedom Caucus members wanted a vote on the bill “as introduced,” but Rep. Mark Meadows, the caucus’ chairman, said that was not accurate. 

“Absolutely not,” the North Carolina Republican told reporters Tuesday night. He said he talked to Goodlatte that day and told him to make the changes the members supporting that bill had all agreed to in an effort to make the bill better. 

“We would vote for the modified Goodlatte bill, and we would prefer that because we think it has a better chance of getting a higher vote count,” Meadows added. 

Meadows participated in the Wednesday meeting, which was led by Scalise and the whip team. He acknowledged there was a “passionate” debate over which version of the Goodlatte bill the House should be taking up Thursday. 

Several other members described the discussion and said there was a consensus that the amended Goodlatte bill should be voted on over the original, but it was unclear whether leadership was going to listen to their suggestion. 

After that meeting, members headed to the floor for a vote series, and Meadows got into a heated conversation with Ryan.

While Meadows declined to get into too many specifics about what the argument was about, he said it was more about problems with the compromise bill than the issue over which version of the Goodlatte bill the House would take up.

“The compromise bill is not ready for prime time,” he said. “There were things that were supposed to be in the compromise bill that are not in the compromise bill that we had all agreed to.” 

Meadows said he was told there were two things in the bill that he found were not in there after he finished reading the bill Wednesday. He declined to say what those two things were. 

Wednesday’s drama could easily carry into votes Thursday, and both appear doomed to fail at this juncture. What happens after that is anyone’s guess, but moderates are leaving open the possibility of restarting the discharge petition.

“All our options are on the table,” Florida Rep. Carlos Curbelo said Tuesday. “Our goal is for Congress, the House, to pass meaningful immigration this year. So we will keep all our options on the table. But we’re hopeful that something works out this week.”

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