House GOP leaders fail to find compromise immigration fix
© Greg Nash

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, in a 1939 radio address, said the reason for the Soviet Union’s switch from the Axis to Allied powers at the outset of World War II “is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” But, he added, “perhaps [the]…key is Russian national interest.”

By the same token, the House Republican leadership’s approach to our immigration dilemma is a conundrum, wrapped in a quandary, inside an active volcano. Perhaps the key is the GOP’s electoral self-interest in this fall’s midterm elections. That would explain why the leadership has alternated between trying to placate its hardline right and more moderate members from swing districts, with no success.

ADVERTISEMENT

When this column last visited feuding House Republicans, a couple dozen moderate Republicans were just two signatures away from putting a discharge petition on immigration legislation over the requisite 218 mark (with the help of all House Democrats). They claimed to have sufficient GOP standby signatures to put it over the top, but were awaiting the outcome of negotiations with their leadership on a possible compromise to avoid using the discharge route (which would give House Democrats bragging rights in an election year).

The resulting “compromise” was twofold: first, a modified version of a more hardline approach introduced by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Robert Goodlatte (Va.); and second, a free-standing bill worked out between the moderate GOP faction and their leadership that would fund the border wall and provide a path to citizenship for the “dreamers,” persons brought into to this country illegally as children by their parents.

The House Rules Committee reported two special rules making the competing approaches in order for floor consideration under a closed amendment process, with just one hour of general debate on each.

It should be remembered, though, that the GOP moderates had pinned their discharge petition on a special rule, making in order the Goodlatte bill as base text for considering four substitute amendments: one by Goodlatte; one by Rep. Lucille Roybal-AllardLucille Roybal-AllardIt's time to retire primate experiments Bill allowing Congress to hire Dreamers advances On The Money: Fed holds rates steady as economy strengthens | Trump requests .5 billion more for border crisis | Dems seek unity on spending bills | Moore looks to save Fed bid MORE (D-Calif.); one by Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanAmash storm hits Capitol Hill Debate with Donald Trump? Just say no Ex-Trump adviser says GOP needs a better health-care message for 2020 MORE (R-Wis.); and one by Rep. Jeff DenhamJeffrey (Jeff) John DenhamEx-GOP Rep. Denham heads to lobbying firm Crazy California an outlier? No, we are the canary in the coal mine Polling editor says news outlets should be more cautious calling elections MORE (R-Calif.), leader of the discharge effort.

The moderates’ concession to the leadership’s two-step compromise process is significant since the first action would be on the more hardline Goodlatte bill, as modified, to address demands of the GOP Freedom Caucus. If that bill, the subject of the discharge petition, was defeated as expected, the separate discharge process would in effect be scuttled, even if the special rule is subsequently discharged and adopted. That’s because, under House precedents, a bill that is defeated cannot be reconsidered in the same Congress. That means that if an attempt is made to call-up the bill after the discharged rule is adopted, a point of order could be raised (and surely sustained) that the bill is no longer eligible for consideration, having already been defeated.           

The leadership’s alternative, two-bill approach played-out over the past two weeks leading up to the July 4 recess. On Thursday, June 21, the special rule for the original Goodlatte bill was adopted on a near party-line vote, but the bill itself was defeated, 193 to 231, with 41 Republicans voting against the bill.

Then, on the following Wednesday, June 27, the second bill, also sponsored by Goodlatte but with the compromise language acceptable to the moderates, was considered. This time the bill suffered an even greater defeat than the previous effort, 121 to 301, with 121 Republicans in favor and 112 against.

The latter vote, with the Republican Conference split almost down the middle, is perhaps the best indicator of how divided Republicans are over the issue of immigration and the difficult challenge for GOP leaders to forge an acceptable compromise without some Democratic support.   At best, the hardline conservatives and moderates can both return to their districts and claim they voted for legislation that was in tune with voter sentiment at home.

At worse, they must confront the hard charge that, even with their party in control of the White House, House and Senate, Republicans cannot resolve one of the most troubling and urgent problems convulsing the country -- our immigration muddle – leaving incumbents to scramble for safety as the volcano’s heat builds.

Don Wolfensberger is a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center and Bipartisan Policy Center, and former staff director of the House Rules Committee. He is author of Changing Cultures in Congress: From Fair Play to Power Plays (forthcoming in October). The views expressed are solely his own.