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 CurbeloDirect air capture is a crucial bipartisan climate policy Biden's corporate tax hike is bad for growth — try a carbon tax instead Cheney fight stokes cries of GOP double standard for women MORE (Fla.) and Jeff DenhamJeffrey (Jeff) John DenhamBottom line Bottom line Business groups breathe sigh of relief over prospect of divided government 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 TrumpMeghan McCain: Democrats 'should give a little credit' to Trump for COVID-19 vaccine Trump testing czar warns lockdowns may be on table if people don't get vaccinated Overnight Health Care: CDC details Massachusetts outbreak that sparked mask update | White House says national vaccine mandate 'not under consideration at this time' 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 governor says he was not exposed to COVID-19 after Aurora mayor tests positive Colorado mayor says he called protesters 'domestic terrorists' out of 'frustration' Colorado governor directs officials to reexamine death of Elijah McClain in police custody 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 LanceKean Jr. to run against Malinowski: report Thomas Kean wins GOP primary to take on Rep. Tom Malinowski Gun debate to shape 2020 races MORE (N.J.), Brian FitzpatrickBrian K. FitzpatrickGyms, hotels, bus companies make last-ditch plea for aid Democrats seek to calm nervous left Biden's corporate tax hike is bad for growth — try a carbon tax instead MORE (Pa.) and Erik PaulsenErik Philip PaulsenThe Biden 15 percent global tax puts foreign companies ahead of American workers House panel opens probe into Tom Reed over sexual misconduct allegations GOP Rep. Tom Reed accused of sexual misconduct 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 ValadaoPro-impeachment Republicans outpace GOP rivals in second-quarter fundraising Cheney, Kinzinger are sole GOP votes for Jan. 6 select committee Progressives nearly tank House Democrats' Capitol security bill MORE (Calif.), Will HurdWilliam Ballard HurdFirst Democrat jumps into key Texas House race to challenge Gonzales Will the real Lee Hamiltons and Olympia Snowes please stand up? The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Biden, Congress drawn into pipeline cyberattack, violence in Israel MORE (Texas) and Mia LoveLudmya (Mia) LoveBlack Republican advocates his case for CBC membership Black women look to build upon gains in coming elections Voters elected a record number of Black women to Congress this year — none were Republican 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 RyanRealClearPolitics reporter says Freedom Caucus shows how much GOP changed under Trump Juan Williams: Biden's child tax credit is a game-changer Trump clash ahead: Ron DeSantis positions himself as GOP's future in a direct-mail piece 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 RubioBreak glass in case of emergency — but not for climate change Democrats join GOP in pressuring Biden over China, virus origins Senators introduce bipartisan bill to expand foreign aid partnerships 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.”