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House GOP ‘Uphill Fight’ on Immigration About More Than Trump

President’s tweets not helping, but Republicans still have major policy divisions

Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif., leaves the Capitol in the rain after the final vote of the week on Friday. He plans to spend his weekend continuing negotiations over immigration legislation, striving to reach an agreement on changes before a rescheduled vote next week. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif., leaves the Capitol in the rain after the final vote of the week on Friday. He plans to spend his weekend continuing negotiations over immigration legislation, striving to reach an agreement on changes before a rescheduled vote next week. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

President Donald Trump is certainly not helping House Republicans by deeming their immigration negotiations a waste of time, but he’s far from the only issue they face in what one GOP leader called an “uphill fight” to pass legislation.

The House Republican Conference is still struggling internally to coalesce around a bill that members from the various GOP factions negotiated in recent weeks, dubbed the compromise bill. Republican leaders had initially scheduled a vote on the measure for Thursday, and then thought about Friday. Ultimately, they decided to push it off into the next week to negotiate further changes

“We’re going to move forward, and we’re going to have a vote,” House Majority Whip Steve Scalise said Friday. “And obviously, it’s an uphill fight to put that coalition together when we’ve got our own diverse approaches within the Republican Conference.”

Those diverse approaches are something House Republicans are still trying to work through. Many members on Friday expressed optimism that they would be able to overcome their policy divisions, but one key lawmaker was doubtful. 

“The fundamental problem is a DACA fix does not have a majority of Republicans that are willing to vote yes,” Chief Deputy Whip Patrick T. McHenry said, referring to a solution to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Program that shelters young undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children from deportation.

Watch: Ryan Says He Doesn’t Know If an Immigration Bill Can Pass

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“You have a lot of Republicans and you have a lot of Democrats — if Democrats were willing to play on this,” the North Carolina Republican said. “Absent the Democrats playing on it, we’re not going to have a fix to DACA.”

Republicans know they are not going to get any help from Democrats on the bill they’ve been negotiating. That was Trump’s point when he tweeted Friday that “Republicans should stop wasting their time.” 

But rather than acknowledge that the two parties are largely divided on their approaches to complex issues like DACA, border security, family-based immigration and family separation, Trump simply accused Democrats of “playing games.”

“Elect more Republicans in November and we will pass the finest, fairest and most comprehensive immigration bills anywhere in the world,” Trump tweeted. “Right now we have the dumbest and the worst. Dems are doing nothing but obstructing.”

Midterm election year politics have contributed to the partisan divide and unwillingness from both parties to negotiate on a bipartisan basis. That’s among the reasons Republicans are negotiating within their own party. 

Uncertain outcome

The uncertain outcome of those negotiations is likely the reason Trump wants Republicans to abandon their efforts. If the GOP can’t pass an immigration bill dealing with DACA on their own, as McHenry predicted, that undercuts Trump’s messaging that Democrats are entirely to blame. 

“The president’s tweet stands,” McHenry said. “It is very much a reality on the difficulties of immigration reform, and it also is the reality given the partisan nature of our current environment in a political year.”

So why are House Republicans putting themselves through these difficult negotiations? Because moderate Republicans wanted floor action and had planned to use a discharge petition to force votes on four measures before the agreement to move a GOP compromise bill.

“Those that agreed to this process so we could turn off the discharge petition still have a pledge that we are willing to fulfill,” McHenry said. 

But the goal for the discharge petition backers, like Reps. Carlos Curbelo of Florida and Jeff Denham of California, was always to get a vote on a bill that could pass. 

That is why House Republicans delayed the vote on the compromise bill, which did not have enough support for passage Thursday. 

Now they’re working on potential additions to the bill. The idea is to marry a provision conservatives want, which would require employers to use the E-Verify database to check the legal status of their employees, with the creation of a guest worker visa program for agriculture and other industries where labor is in short supply.

Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows and Denham “came together” and agreed to make those additions to the bill during a GOP conference meeting Thursday evening, Homeland Security Chairman Michael McCaul said. 

“I thought it was sort of an odd couple, but it was interesting to see that,” the Texas Republican said. 

McCaul, who is one of the authors of the compromise bill, said Denham, another author, agreed to add the E-Verify mandate conservatives were requesting. 

Denham said the description of an agreement was not accurate.

“No, we are working to see if we can have an agreement on E-Verify and ag jobs,” he said. “We’re not there yet.”

Watch: Ted Lieu Plays ProPublica Audio of Migrant Children on House Floor

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Moderates open

Mandatory E-Verify is problematic for some moderate Republicans, although many said Friday they would be open to it in conjunction with the guest worker program, depending on how the provisions are written. 

“We have to have programs that work so that employers have the ability to follow the law but also have programs that work for them,” California Rep. David Valadao said.

“There’s a lot more employers than border agents, so engaging the business community in making sure that people are legal when they hire them is a really important way to do this,” New Jersey Rep. Tom MacArthur said of E-Verify. “There are concerns, particularly in the agriculture sector, about not making it difficult for them to hire people. I’m sensitive to that, but I think we can work around that.”

Washington Rep. Dave Reichert said he’s open to E-Verify with “some of the guardrails in it and a clear direction.” He said addressing the need for agricultural visas is important to him and he’d prefer to do it now rather than later. 

GOP leaders had initially decided to leave E-Verify and the guest worker program out of the compromise bill, promising members to hold a vote on those issues in July. 

“We thought it would be a detriment to the votes,” McHenry said of why leadership didn’t want those provisions in the compromise bill. 

Has the calculus changed now that they’re considering adding them?

“Same as it ever was,” McHenry acknowledged. 

Other issues

As if dealing with those two issues isn’t tricky enough, some conservatives still have other provisions they want in the compromise bill. 

Freedom Caucus leaders like Meadows and Scott Perry say they want a workaround to a Supreme Court ruling known as Chevron Deference that they were promised would be in the bill. The provision would prevent administrative agencies from using any potential ambiguities in the measure to make their own interpretations of what the law should be rather than checking with Congress.

Also related to preventing ambiguities, Perry said, “There are members that don’t want to codify what they believe is [former] President Obama’s illegal DACA action and they want to make sure that whatever bill comes out of the House clarifies and rescinds that.”

Conservatives also want a provision to prevent so-called Dreamers, who could eventually obtain citizenship under the bill, from being able to sponsor visas for their parents who brought them to the country illegally when they were children. That will “remain an issue until it’s solved,” Perry said.

Whether Republicans have the bandwidth to resolve all these issues in time to vote this week remains to be seen. Those are the larger issues they have to work through before they need to worry much about Trump’s position on the bill. 

But the president’s support is important.

One GOP aide said the conference is in a Catch-22: There aren’t enough Republicans to pass a bill that Trump hasn’t publicly endorsed, but Trump won’t provide his public support for it unless he knows it will pass. 

House Republicans did hear privately from Trump during a closed-door meeting at the Capitol on Tuesday that he supports their efforts. And on Thursday, Judiciary Chairman Robert W. Goodlatte, one of the compromise bill’s authors, said he talked to Trump and the president said he wanted them to pass the bill. 

But those private assurances don’t carry much weight without public backing. 

“I take those sort of with a grain of salt,” Kentucky Rep. Thomas Massie said. “You have to take the president by his tweet.”

So far, Trump’s tweets have not been encouraging House Republicans in their efforts. The Friday tweet about them wasting their time was particularly demoralizing for some members. 

“We’ve reached, I think, a good consensus, and suddenly we wake up to another tweet,” Florida Rep. Dennis A. Ross said. “And it’s like, I think he’s with us, but he’s got to really come out for us. This is the opportunity.”

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