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House Republicans Hope to Resuscitate Immigration Issue

July votes expected on family separation, and guest worker and E-Verify

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy said GOP leaders will keep their promise for a July vote on an agriculture guest worker program and mandatory E-Verify and are also discussing legislation to address family separations at the border. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy said GOP leaders will keep their promise for a July vote on an agriculture guest worker program and mandatory E-Verify and are also discussing legislation to address family separations at the border. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

House Republicans’ thorniest issue, immigration, is not going away after Wednesday’s embarrassing defeat of their “compromise” bill.

GOP leaders are planning votes in July on two more narrow bills that are also not guaranteed to pass. Some rank-and-file Republicans want to continue talks on a larger measure in hopes of finding an elusive path to passage. 

House Republicans’ primary focus when they return from the weeklong Independence Day recess will be to pass legislation addressing family separation at the border. 

President Donald Trump implemented an executive order designed to keep migrant children with their parents, but administration officials say it’s a temporary solution and a permanent legislative fix is needed.

A senior GOP aide said discussions on such legislation have been taking place over the past few days and will continue into the recess with leadership hoping to present at least a framework to the GOP conference when lawmakers return the week of July 9.

While Republicans are hoping to find a solution to the family separation matter relatively quickly, they’re also watching a federal court case in which the Justice Department is seeking to overturn a previous ruling, known as the Flores settlement, that says the federal government cannot detain accompanied migrant children for more than 20 days. 

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy wasn’t ready Thursday to commit to getting a bill addressing family separations on the floor in July. 

“We’ll see the need of it with the latest court case, working with the administration to see what the needs are,” the California Republican said. 

House Republicans had included language in their failed compromise bill to address family separations, a provision of which would have overridden the Flores settlement. Specifically, it would have allowed families to be detained together through the duration of criminal proceedings initiated against the parents for illegally crossing the border — the same thing Justice is trying to accomplish through the courts. 

“I think we probably would’ve done family [reunification legislation], but the White House needs a little more time to figure out exactly what it needs,” Oklahoma GOP Rep. Tom Cole said. “And we don’t want to send the White House something it would feel it had to veto. So we’re waiting on them.”

Watch: Hundreds Hold Sit-In for Immigration at Senate Building

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Other issues

Regardless of what the federal judge decides on Flores, there are things Congress will need to address, such as funding for housing and other resources needed to keep families together during criminal proceedings.

Several conservatives say they want any bill addressing family separations to also include provisions tightening existing asylum laws and clear language preventing so-called catch and release.

“That’s an essential part of the whole issue,” said Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, a House Freedom Caucus leader.

Republican Study Committee Chairman Mark Walker said discussions over the family reunification bill have included talk of other provisions on asylum and immigration judges but that nothing has been decided. 

The North Carolina Republican and some of his colleagues will be making a trip to the border over the recess to see first-hand the problems they’re trying to fix with this narrow bill.

Adding asylum provisions could be problematic for some moderate Republicans. 

Reps. Jeff Denham of California and Carlos Curbelo of Florida, who led negotiations on the failed compromise bill, are weary from that effort and reluctant to accept another immigration bill pushed further to the right by their conservative colleagues. 

“Not at all,” Curbelo said sarcastically when asked if conservatives wanting to address asylum in the family reunification bill would be an issue for moderates. “We could also add DACA provisions as well, then make it balance.”

While Curbelo said he seriously prefers a family separation fix to be part of a broader package, Denham acknowledged it probably needs to stand by itself to pass.

As former Speaker John A. Boehner “used to say quite frequently, a step by step approach, meaning narrow bills, will help us to pass bills,” Denham said.

Promise kept

The other somewhat narrow bill House Republicans plan to take up in July is a measure expanding an agriculture guest-worker program and mandating that employers use the E-Verify system to check the legal status of their employees. 

GOP leaders promised some lawmakers a vote on such a measure during negotiations on the compromise bill because they had intended to leave those issues out to avoid dooming the larger measure.

In the days before the compromise vote, negotiators briefly entertained the idea of adding those two issues in the bill but ultimately left them out when they realized doing so wouldn’t help pass the dying bill.

Several members said Thursday they expected GOP leaders to keep their word and hold a separate vote on the guest-worker and E-Verify matters in July. McCarthy confirmed that’s the plan.

“We’re still looking at that, yeah,” he said. “We made that promise to them.”

That measure is expected to resemble one House Judiciary Chairman Robert W. Goodlatte has offered to expand the current agricultural guest-worker program to provide for year-round visas for foreign workers in various agricultural sectors, while allowing for new categories such as food processing, aquaculture and forestry.

Democrats have not supported Goodlatte’s proposal, but Denham is hoping that with some refinements, some will get on board. 

“We’re looking forward to negotiating something that can actually pass on the floor,” he said, noting he has already begun discussions with Democrats.

Rep. Richard Hudson predicted the guest-worker and E-Verify bill can pass as a standalone.

“I think the only hold-up is people want to save it to get a bigger bill,” the North Carolina Republican said.

Another try for more?

Even though both of the narrow bills will not be easy to pass, some Republicans want to spend time discussing tweaks that can be made to pass a larger measure.

Specifically, conservatives such as Walker, Jordan and Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows have said they’d like to look at what changes can be made to a conservative bill that the House rejected last week. 

That bill, known as “Goodlatte 1,” got 193 Republican votes, just 22 shy of passage. The compromise bill, known as “Goodlatte 2,” by comparison only got 121 votes. 

“This is second-grade math. We’re almost — we’re close with that bill,” Jordan said. “That’s where the focus should be if we’re going to do something.”

Meadows acknowledged there are more options but Goodlatte 1 appears to be the best one.

“Most conservatives believe if you can take Goodlatte 1 and move it more to the center, that there’s a greater chance of getting 218 just based on vote total,” the North Carolina Republican said.

“I think there are a couple of issues that would actually speak to some of the issues that are important to more centrist Republican members, one of those being TPS,” Meadows added, referring to temporary protected status for refugees from countries such as El Salvador, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Sudan.

“Obviously, it’s eluded 218 twice, and so I’m not suggesting that it’s an easy path,” Meadows said of a potential third GOP-only immigration bill. 

Complicating the effort to resume discussions on a larger immigration bill are emotions leftover from the failed negotiations on the compromise measure.

“Look, I’m not sore, but I feel some people around here are sore,” Freedom Caucus member Scott Perry of Pennsylvania said.

In evidence of that claim, Curbelo shot down the prospect of continuing talks with conservatives without a clear picture of what they want.

“I’m interested in knowing … what they would support and vote for,” he said. “I’m not interested in negotiating.”

Curbelo, Denham and other moderates have said in the wake of the compromise bill’s failure that for any immigration bill to pass, it must be bipartisan.

Their only path to force bipartisan legislation to the floor though is through a discharge petition, which they previously tried and narrowly failed to activate.

Because of rules governing the timing of the use of that mechanism, moderate Republicans would have to start a new discharge petition and have 218 members sign it on July 10, the day the House returns from recess, to activate one in time for a vote before the midterms. Denham acknowledged it would be impossible to get 218 signatures in a single day.

Yet moderates said they’re more focused on talking to Democrats about a path forward on immigration legislation than their GOP colleagues.

Intraparty negotiations among Republicans have already played out and continued talks won’t produce a different outcome, Curbelo said.

“It’s the same exercise,” he said. “I told them whether you take one bill and move it to the left or the other one and move it to the right, it’s the same — it’s what we did.”

Dean DeChiaro and Ellyn Ferguson contributed to this report. 

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