GOP nearing end game on immigration votes

House Republicans left Washington for their 11-day Memorial Day recess without solving the vexing immigration issue that is dividing them just months before the midterm elections.

Yet the effort by GOP centrists to force immigration votes gained steam before Thursday’s exit, suggesting Republican leaders may soon be forced to address legislation protecting the so-called Dreamers, perhaps as early as next month.

Two more Republicans and six Democrats signed their name Thursday to a discharge petition, leaving supporters just five signatures short of being able to bypass Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanDems unveil slate of measures to ratchet up pressure on Russia National Dems make play in Ohio special election Trump vows to hold second meeting with Putin MORE (R-Wis.) and force a series of votes to protect hundreds of thousands of young, undocumented immigrants currently in the U.S.

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That leaves Ryan and GOP leaders with a narrow window to negotiate an agreement between the party’s warring conservative and centrist factions over legislation to salvage the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which President TrumpDonald John TrumpNFL freezes policy barring players from protesting during anthem McConnell spokesman on Putin visit: 'There is no invitation from Congress' Petition urges University of Virginia not to hire Marc Short MORE wants to dismantle.

But the leading proponents of the petition say they have the support locked down to reach the magic number of 218, even if the final signatures have not yet materialized. Heading into the recess Thursday morning, some centrist Republicans indicated they might endorse the petition when Congress returns if GOP leaders are unable to secure a separate DACA deal by June 7.

Leadership has scheduled a two-hour, all-conference immigration meeting for that very day.

“Everybody’s negotiating still,” said Rep. Dennis RossDennis Alan RossTrump, GOP launch full-court press on compromise immigration measure GOP will vote on immigration next week, sinking discharge petition GOP centrists face decision day on Dreamer petition MORE (R-Fla.), a senior deputy whip. “So we’re giving them 10 days to see what happens. At least I am.”

Ross said he might sign the petition when Congress returns to Washington in June, but added, “I’m not there yet.”

Rep. Tom ReedThomas (Tom) W. ReedOvernight Health Care: Trump officials explore importing prescription drugs | Key ObamaCare, drug pricing regs under review | GOP looks to blunt attacks on rising premiums | Merck to lower some drug prices GOP looks to blunt Dems’ attacks on rising premiums House GOP reverses, cancels vote on Dem bill to abolish ICE MORE (R-N.Y.) was not as patient. The co-chairman of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, Reed endorsed the petition on the House floor during Thursday’s votes. Rep. Brian FitzpatrickBrian K. FitzpatrickOvernight Energy: Proposed rule would roll back endangered species protections | House passes Interior, EPA spending | House votes to disavow carbon tax House votes to disavow carbon tax GOP group hits Pennsylvania Dem over foundation donations MORE (R-Pa.) added his name a short time later, bringing the number of Republican signatures up to 23.

"I gave them my word I'd sign before I left," Reed told The Hill on Thursday. "Leadership and the Freedom Caucus needed to see continuing movement toward arming the [discharge-petition] device. They are truly in the final stage of making a deal. If they don't, all bets are off." 

GOP leaders are desperately trying to head off the discharge push by coming up with a solution that satisfies both centrist Republicans and those in the hard-right House Freedom Caucus. The centrists say they want nothing short of a permanent solution for recipients of the DACA program — including eventual citizenship opportunities — while immigration hard-liners dismiss a “special” path to citizenship as amnesty for undocumented immigrants.

Rep. Carlos CurbeloCarlos Luis CurbeloOvernight Energy: Proposed rule would roll back endangered species protections | House passes Interior, EPA spending | House votes to disavow carbon tax House votes to disavow carbon tax Mueller indictments: Congressional candidate asked Russian operatives for info on opponent MORE (R-Fla.), the centrist sponsor of the discharge petition, said there’s room for compromise between those two positions. 

“This is a technical issue. For us, it’s important that young immigrants brought to the country as children — the victims of the immigration system — have a bridge into the legal immigration system,” he said. “And no one at any of our meetings has said that that’s unacceptable.” 

The leaders of the Freedom Caucus are fighting to sink the discharge petition, fearing it will empower the minority Democrats to send their preferred DACA bill to the Senate — and keep the conservative base at home come Election Day. Freedom Caucus leaders are pushing to secure a vote on their favored bill, sponsored by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob GoodlatteRobert (Bob) William GoodlatteWill Congress ever hold our federal agencies accountable for contempt? Lots of love: Charity tennis match features lawmakers teaming up across the aisle Dems try to end hearing on bias against conservatives in tech MORE (R-Va.). That measure would provide temporary legal protections for Dreamers, but no pathway to citizenship. Last week, those conservatives killed the Republicans’ farm bill because GOP leaders refused to vote first on the Goodlatte proposal. 

Yet the Goodlatte bill lacks the Republican support to pass the House, let alone the Senate. And Democrats view the severe enforcement provisions in the bill as a non-starter. House Minority Leader Nancy PelosiNancy Patricia D'Alesandro PelosiDems unveil slate of measures to ratchet up pressure on Russia GOP looks to blunt Dems’ attacks on rising premiums Who will be the ‘bridge’ for the Democrats? MORE (D-Calif.) on Thursday referred to the legislation as “the Make America White Again bill.”

GOP negotiators appeared to make some progress Wednesday during a lengthy meeting in the Capitol office of House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthyKevin Owen McCarthyHouse leaders clash over resolution backing ICE House backs resolution expressing support for ICE House GOP reverses, cancels vote on Dem bill to abolish ICE MORE (R-Calif.). McCarthy’s California colleague, Rep. Jeff DenhamJeffrey (Jeff) John DenhamKoch group pushes DACA fix on Capitol Hill House GOP reverses, cancels vote on Dem bill to abolish ICE House GOP leaders fail to find compromise immigration fix MORE (R), a key centrist negotiator, told reporters Thursday that he left the meeting believing he had a “deal in principle” with GOP leaders and Freedom Caucus members.  

“It involved a permanent fix for Dreamers,” Denham said as he descended the Capitol steps.

But Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark MeadowsMark Randall MeadowsFreedom Caucus lawmakers call on DOJ to probe Rosenstein allegations House GOP questions FBI lawyer for second day Five GOP lawmakers mulling bid to lead conservative caucus MORE (R-N.C.), who attended that gathering, told The Hill that Denham misspoke, even while saying that talks were moving in the right direction. 

“Flights were delayed and travel arrangements were adjusted to continue negotiations” on Thursday, Meadows said. “This would not have occurred if progress was not being made.”

Failure to reach an agreement would lend new urgency to the push for Curbelo’s discharge petition, a procedural gambit that rarely works because it forces members of the majority party to buck their own leadership. Curbelo, Denham and several other leaders of the discharge petition effort all represent districts with heavy Hispanic populations, and all are facing tough reelection contests in November. 

If all 193 House Democrats were to endorse the petition, Curbelo would need 25 Republicans to hit the 218 mark — two more than have currently signed on. But three Texas border Democrats are holding out — Reps. Filemon VelaFilemon Bartolome VelaProgressives’ wins highlight divide in Democratic Party Live coverage: High drama as hardline immigration bill fails, compromise vote delayed Merkley leads Dem lawmakers to border amid migrant policy outcry MORE, Vicente Gonzalez and Henry Cuellar — citing concerns that the process would lead to new border wall construction. And at least one of those Democrats says his opposition is immoveable.

“I’m not in the middle on that thing,” Vela warned Wednesday. “I’m a ‘no.’”

Those close to leadership say they’re confident that Ryan will find a way to bridge the divide, thereby defusing the internal fight over the discharge petition. 

“All parties are working together in good faith,” said Rep. Ann WagnerAnn Louise WagnerFive GOP lawmakers mulling bid to lead conservative caucus Lawmakers demand answers from Mnuchin on Trump tariffs The Hill's 12:30 Report MORE (R-Mo.), who is close to leadership. “I’ve very hopeful they’ll be able to work out a deal.” 

In the meantime, as lawmakers return home for the Memorial Day recess, Democrats are predicting the GOP holdouts are in for an earful from pro-DACA constituents.

“It’s going to be very loud for some of these members,” said Rep. Peter Aguilar (D-Calif.). 

Juliegrace Brufke contributed.