House immigration fight could boost vulnerable Republicans

House immigration fight could boost vulnerable Republicans
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Vulnerable House Republicans are hoping a high-stakes clash with GOP leadership over immigration reform can help them in tough races that could determine the House majority.

Many of the 23 Republicans who signed the discharge petition are facing some of the toughest races on the ballot this November. Meanwhile, securing protections for the so-called “Dreamers” — a key part of the immigration reform push — polls well among the moderates and independents who could cast pivotal votes in these tight elections.

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That creates an incentive for vulnerable Republicans backing the protections to buck leadership by forcing a vote.

“Their constituents want action, particularly on something like [Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA)]. There’s an intensity in the districts to get something done, and you are supporting a leadership that doesn’t want to move,” said former Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), a former head of the National Republican Congressional Committee.

“You’re going to stand on your head and do whatever it takes to make sure that the people don’t hold this against you.”

GOP Reps. Carlos CurbeloCarlos Luis CurbeloCook Political Report moves 4 GOP seats to 'toss-up' category GOP lawmaker: Every white suburban district in the country will be a swing district this year The Hill's Morning Report — Election Day drama for Trump MORE (Fla.) and Jeff DenhamJeffrey (Jeff) John DenhamThe farm bill gives Congress a chance to act on the Pet and Women Safety (PAWS) Act Police chief ‘disgusted’ after his son charged in attack of 71-year-old Sikh man Police make arrests in attack of 71-year-old Sikh man MORE (Calif.), both of whom are facing tough races in November, are leading the charge on the Republican side. They’re joined by 21 other Republican lawmakers who are siding with Democrats to force GOP leadership’s hand on immigration with a discharge petition.

The group needs only five more signatures to trigger a series of votes, including one on a plan to protect Dreamers, immigrants who came to America illegally as children. 

Former President Obama’s DACA program offered some of those immigrants protection from deportation and work permits, but President TrumpDonald John TrumpNFL players stand in tunnel during anthem, extending protests 12 former top intel officials blast Trump's move to revoke Brennan's security clearance NYT: Omarosa believed to have as many as 200 tapes MORE moved to end the program in 2017.

The fate of the program remains in limbo for now thanks to a handful of court battles. 

Talking with reporters on Wednesday, Curbelo called Dreamers “victims of the immigration system” and said the group resolutely supports giving these immigrants a “bridge into the legal immigration system.”

Along with Curbelo and Denham, GOP Reps. Mike CoffmanMichael (Mike) Howard CoffmanColorado couple fighting to stop adopted 4-year-old daughter from being deported Dems make big play for House in California Election Countdown: Ohio special election fight heats up | Takeaways from Georgia primaries | Key primaries ahead in August | Blankenship files for third-party bid in West Virginia | More Dem candidates say they won't back Pelosi MORE (Colo.), John FasoJohn James FasoElection Countdown: Latest on the 2018 Senate money race | Red-state Dems feeling the heat over Kavanaugh | Dem doubts about Warren | Ocasio-Cortez to visit Capitol Hill | Why Puerto Ricans in Florida could swing Senate race Progressives’ wins highlight divide in Democratic Party Delgado wins Dem primary in N.Y. race to unseat Faso MORE (N.Y.), Leonard LanceLeonard LanceDems eyeing smaller magic number for House majority Liberal group launches ads targeting Azar over child separations Lawmakers split over how to expand rural broadband MORE (N.J.), Brian FitzpatrickBrian K. FitzpatrickHouse GOP starts summer break on a note of friction Actress Diane Lane urges lawmakers to ban shark fin trade Rosenstein impeachment push divides House GOP leadership MORE (Pa.) and Erik PaulsenErik Philip PaulsenElection Countdown: GOP worries House majority endangered by top of ticket | Dems make history in Tuesday's primaries | Parties fight for Puerto Rican vote in Florida | GOP lawmakers plan 'Freedom Tour' GOP worries House majority endangered by top of ticket Allow HSA dollars to be used for over-the-counter drugs MORE (Minn.) are the GOP petition-signers who are running in races that the Cook Political Report rates as “toss-ups."

Republican Reps. David ValadaoDavid Goncalves ValadaoDems make big play for House in California Immigration overhaul on life support in the House The Hill's 12:30 Report MORE (Calif.), Will HurdWilliam Ballard HurdJuan Williams: What does Putin have on Trump? GOP lawmaker: Trump was ‘manipulated’ by Putin Schiff: Trump is acting like someone who is compromised MORE (Texas) and Mia LoveLudmya (Mia) LoveUtah newspapers slam GOP’s Mia Love for 'deliberately deceptive' mailers 10 dark horse candidates for Speaker of the House Overnight Energy: Proposed rule would roll back endangered species protections | House passes Interior, EPA spending | House votes to disavow carbon tax MORE (Utah) have also signed the petition. Their seats are rated “lean Republican” by Cook — races that favor the GOP, but could still be tough challenges. 

Many of these districts are home to a significant number of Hispanic residents or DACA recipients.

Curbelo’s district is 70 percent Hispanic, Hurd’s is 68 percent Hispanic and Denham’s is 40 percent Hispanic.

Valadao’s district has more DACA recipients than in any district in the country represented by a Republican, according to data compiled by the liberal think tank Center for American Progress in 2017.

The issue also polls well, which adds to the pressure on lawmakers in moderate districts.

Sixty-five percent of American adults support an immigration deal that trades a path to citizenship for DACA-eligible immigrants in exchange for various more conservative immigration reforms, according to new data shared with The Hill by the Harvard CAPS/Harris Poll. 

Moderates and political independents approve of that compromise by a similar margin, the poll shows.

Conservatives in Congress are warning that bypassing Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanGOP super PAC hits Dem House hopeful as 'Pelosi liberal' in new Kansas ad Trump revokes Brennan's security clearance The Hill's 12:30 Report MORE (R-Wis.) will make Republicans look weak. House passage of a DACA bill, they warn, would risk alienating conservative voters and depress GOP turnout in the midterms.

But that’s not necessarily a compelling argument for these lawmakers, who stand to gain from distancing themselves from their party.

“There’s no political cost for most of these members to sign the discharge petition,” said Alex Conant, a GOP strategist and former top aide to Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioGOP looks to injure Nelson over Russia comments Rubio’s pro-family, conservative family leave policy promotes stability Dems make history in Tuesday's primaries MORE (R-Fla.).

“A lot of these members are in swing districts where they are not worried about criticism from Republican leaders or the White House. In fact, in some cases, it might help.”

Democrats have been warning vulnerable Republicans who haven’t joined the effort to hop on board, arguing they’ll pay a price in November if they don’t.

But Democrats plan to use immigration as a midterm weapon even against Republicans who do sign the discharge petition, pointing to the fact that House leadership tried to block immigration reform to argue Democrats should take control of the Speaker's gavel.

Even as the effort nears the tipping point, it’s unclear how the situation will ultimately end.

The GOP signers say they have more than enough lawmakers ready to sign if GOP leadership won’t budge.

But there’s hope that ongoing negotiations between representatives of various factions within the GOP caucus can settle on a compromise before June 7 — the day that the discharge petition backers say they’ll give a green light to those final signers and force the vote.

As Republicans scramble for the last-minute compromise, former Rep. Davis said that leadership would be wise to set up their most vulnerable members for success in the fall. 

“Republican leadership has to pay attention to their swing districts over the next five months, that will determine whether they have gavels next year or are just wagging their tongues,” he said.

“If they can’t work as a team, voters will throw them out.”