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 Memo: GOP cringes at new Trump race controversy Trump, GOP go all-in on anti-China strategy Republicans can't exploit the left's climate extremism without a better idea MORE (Fla.) and Jeff DenhamJeffrey (Jeff) John DenhamBottom line Bottom line Lobbying world 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 TrumpDeWine tests negative for coronavirus a second time Several GOP lawmakers express concern over Trump executive orders Beirut aftermath poses test for US aid to frustrating ally 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 mayor says he called protesters 'domestic terrorists' out of 'frustration' Colorado governor directs officials to reexamine death of Elijah McClain in police custody Petition demanding justice for Elijah McClain surpasses 2 million signatures MORE (Colo.), John FasoJohn James FasoDemocrats go big on diversity with new House recruits Kyle Van De Water wins New York GOP primary to challenge Rep. Antonio Delgado The most expensive congressional races of the last decade MORE (N.Y.), Leonard LanceLeonard LanceThomas Kean wins GOP primary to take on Rep. Tom Malinowski Gun debate to shape 2020 races GOP fears Trump backlash in suburbs MORE (N.J.), Brian FitzpatrickBrian K. Fitzpatrick2020 Global Tiger Day comes with good news, but Congress still has work to do How Congress is preventing a Medicare bankruptcy during COVID-19 Overnight Energy: House passes major conservation bill, sending to Trump | EPA finalizes rule to speed up review of industry permits MORE (Pa.) and Erik PaulsenErik Philip PaulsenPass USMCA Coalition drops stance on passing USMCA Two swing-district Democrats raise impeachment calls after whistleblower reports Hopes dim for passage of Trump trade deal 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 ValadaoRepublicans uncomfortably playing defense House Democrats target Midwestern GOP seats Democratic Rep. Cox advances in California primary MORE (Calif.), Will HurdWilliam Ballard HurdDemocrats go big on diversity with new House recruits Texas Democrats plan 7-figure ad buy to turn state blue Republicans face worsening outlook in battle for House MORE (Texas) and Mia LoveLudmya (Mia) LoveFormer NFL player Burgess Owens wins Utah GOP primary The Hill's Campaign Report: The political heavyweights in Tuesday's primary fights The biggest political upsets of the decade 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 RyanWary GOP eyes Meadows shift from brick-thrower to dealmaker Budowsky: Why I back Kennedy, praise Markey Democratic super PAC quotes Reagan in anti-Trump ad set to air on Fox News: 'Are you better off?' 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 RubioPPP application window closes after coronavirus talks deadlock  The Hill's Campaign Report: US officials say Russia, China are looking to sow discord in election US intelligence says Russia seeking to 'denigrate' Biden 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.”