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 CurbeloThe Hill's Morning Report - Trump, Biden go toe-to-toe in Iowa The Hill's Morning Report - Trump, Biden go toe-to-toe in Iowa Ex-GOP lawmakers are face of marijuana blitz MORE (Fla.) and 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 (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 TrumpTrump defends Stephanopolous interview Trump defends Stephanopolous interview Buttigieg on offers of foreign intel: 'Just call the FBI' 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 Coffman20 years after Columbine, Dems bullish on gun reform Denver Post editorial board says Gardner endorsement was 'mistake' Trump suggests Heller lost reelection bid because he was 'hostile' during 2016 presidential campaign MORE (Colo.), John FasoJohn James FasoThe 31 Trump districts that will determine the next House majority GOP House super PAC targets two freshman Dems with new ads Tax law failed to save GOP majority MORE (N.Y.), Leonard LanceLeonard LancePush for ‘Medicare for all’ worries centrist Dems Incoming Dem lawmaker: Trump 'sympathizes' with leaders 'accused of moral transgressions' On The Money: Why the tax law failed to save the GOP majority | Grassley opts for Finance gavel, setting Graham up for Judiciary | Trump says China eager for trade deal | Facebook reeling after damning NYT report MORE (N.J.), Brian FitzpatrickBrian K. FitzpatrickLawmakers push to permanently ban automatic pay raises for members of Congress Lawmakers push to permanently ban automatic pay raises for members of Congress GOP leader, Ocasio-Cortez give boost to lawmaker pay hike MORE (Pa.) and Erik PaulsenErik Philip PaulsenFight over Trump's new NAFTA hits key stretch Blue states angry over SALT cap should give fiscal sobriety a try Push for ‘Medicare for all’ worries centrist Dems 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 ValadaoThe 8 House Republicans who voted against Trump’s border wall The Hill's Morning Report — Presented by T-Mobile — The political currents that will drive the shutdown showdown Rep. Valadao officially concedes in California race MORE (Calif.), Will HurdWilliam Ballard HurdHillicon Valley: Hacker group targeted electric grid | House Democrats press CBP over facial recognition program | Senators offer bill to protect health data | Groups file FCC complaint over carriers' use of location data Hillicon Valley: Hacker group targeted electric grid | House Democrats press CBP over facial recognition program | Senators offer bill to protect health data | Groups file FCC complaint over carriers' use of location data Lawmakers grapple with deepfake threat at hearing MORE (Texas) and Mia LoveLudmya (Mia) LoveCongressional Women's Softball team releases roster The 31 Trump districts that will determine the next House majority Juan Williams: Racial shifts spark fury in Trump and his base 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 RyanIndiana GOP Rep. Brooks says she won't seek reelection Indiana GOP Rep. Brooks says she won't seek reelection Inside Biden's preparations for first debate 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 RubioElection security bills face GOP buzzsaw Election security bills face GOP buzzsaw The Hill's Morning Report — Uproar after Trump's defense of foreign dirt on candidates 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.”