House conservatives demand vote on tough border bill to avoid shutdown
Members of the far-right House Freedom Caucus are making an eleventh-hour bid to get a floor vote on a conservative immigration bill in exchange for their support on a short-term spending bill, as GOP leaders scramble to secure Republican votes for their proposal to avoid a government shutdown Friday.
While Republican leaders sounded fairly confident Wednesday morning that they would have enough GOP support to pass the continuing resolution (CR), they have little room for error, as Democrats are vowing to oppose any spending bill that doesn’t include relief for immigrants who came to the United States illegally as children.
Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and his top lieutenants are threading a very thin needle as they try to build support among frustrated defense hawks and conservatives for the fourth temporary funding patch since September.
And the House Freedom Caucus, a group of roughly 30 conservative hard-liners, has enough members to defeat legislation if they band together. Leadership can only afford to lose 21 Republican votes, according to the Majority Whip’s office.
“As of right now they don’t have the votes,” Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), the group’s chairman, insisted to reporters as he entered a meeting in the Capitol with White House chief of staff John Kelly on Wednesday.
“There is strong support for the House to put forth a vote on immigration, and the Goodlatte-Labrador bill has the most support within the caucus,” Meadows later told The Hill, referring to a measure authored by Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) and Freedom Caucus member Raúl Labrador (R-Idaho.)
GOP leaders pitched on Tuesday evening a new strategy to avert a shutdown that involves passing a stopgap bill to fund the government through Feb. 16. The CR would be paired with a six-year extension of funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) and would delay three ObamaCare taxes in a bid to attract more conservative support.
The measure would not include a fix for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, as Democrats have been demanding.
Trump rescinded the Obama-era program last year and gave Congress until March 5 to come up with a permanent legal solution, but bipartisan negotiations on a DACA deal have been stalled following reports of President Trump’s disparaging remarks about “shithole countries.”
That means Ryan will likely need to rely on GOP votes for the CR, with leaders whipping the bill Wednesday afternoon and a floor vote expected Thursday.
Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.), the chief deputy whip, was full of confidence as he left a GOP meeting in the Capitol’s basement Tuesday evening, while many rank-and-file members also described the attitude as generally positive toward the spending plan.
The White House expressed support for the continuing resolution Wednesday, which could help sway some undecided voters.
“I can’t swear to it, but the tone sounds pretty good,” said Rep. Bill Flores (R-Texas).
Rep. Mark Walker (R-N.C.), chairman of the Republican Study Committee, estimated after Wednesday’s vote series that the whip count for the short-term funding bill is “somewhere between 210 and 215,” which would make it a tight vote.
That means leadership may have to win over some Freedom Caucus members, who held their own closed-door meeting Tuesday night in which a number of lawmakers expressed concern over the funding patch and broader immigration negotiations on Capitol Hill.
The group did not take a formal position on the CR, which requires 80 percent consensus from the caucus.
But those who are “leaning no” or “undecided” on the short-term spending measure are putting pressure on leadership to bring the Goodlatte immigration bill to the House floor to secure their support for the CR.
“First of all, I’d like to get our House bill on immigration enforcement passed,” Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pa.), a Freedom Caucus member, told reporters on Wednesday. “We ought to put a mark on a that.”
“That’s a minimum standard. That’s No. 1,” he added.
The legislation, which has attracted support from both the conservative and moderate wings of the GOP conference and has buy-in from key committee chairmen, includes more conservative immigration priorities than what is expected from any bipartisan deal on DACA.
In addition to providing DACA recipients with a temporary, renewable legal status, the bill would authorize $30 billion to build a border wall, end family reunification migration and the diversity visa lottery program, mandate the use of “E-Verify” to ensure employers only hire legal workers, allow the Justice Department to withhold grants from so-called sanctuary cities and increase the criminal penalties for deported criminals who return to the U.S. illegally.
“We don’t wanna get rolled by the Senate on DACA and the budget,” said Freedom Caucus Rep. Dave Brat (R-Va.).
Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Texas), another lead sponsor on the Goodlatte bill, said a commitment from leadership on his immigration bill could help win more support for the CR.
“That certainly would help, in terms of whipping votes on the CR,” McCaul said.
But leadership, while supportive of the Goodlatte approach, has so far resisted calls to put the bill on the floor. It’s unclear whether the legislation could pass the House, and even if it does, it’s likely dead on arrival in the Senate. There is also concern the vote could roil the sensitive, high-level negotiations on a bipartisan DACA deal.
“We’re working on the Goodlatte bill,” said Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), when pressed by The Hill on whether leadership has committed to a floor vote yet.
Some Freedom Caucus members are also pushing leadership to fund the Pentagon at higher levels for the rest of the 2018 fiscal year and pass a short-term CR for the rest of the government — a sentiment shared by some defense hawks, but a demand that went nowhere during the previous debate over a CR.
Both Reps. Bradley Byrne (R-Ala.) and Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), two members of the House Armed Services Committee, said Tuesday night they may vote against the CR because it harms military readiness and puts U.S. troops at risk.
If some Freedom Caucus members band together with enough defense hawks, they could tank GOP leadership’s strategy to avert a government shutdown, though it’s unclear whether there are enough of them willing to do so.
Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.) has also threatened to vote against the CR without a DACA deal in place, while Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) is a perennial “no” vote on short-term funding bills.
Meadows reiterated that he wants more than simple assurances that House lawmakers will get a vote on an enforcement-heavy DACA package, similar to the Goodlatte bill.
It’s uncertain whether leadership will cave to the Freedom Caucus demands. But many Republicans believe that most of the GOP conference will end up grudgingly supporting the CR because it’s better than the alternative, which would either be shutting down the government or handing over leverage to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).
And Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), who represents a large swath of the federal workforce, told WJLA he would ultimately support the CR if he was the decisive vote to keep the government open.
“We’ll build support, and we’ll get there. We always get there,” Rep. Frank Lucas (R-Okla.), a member of Republican whip team, told reporters Wednesday morning. “Sometimes, some of my friends want to make it more exciting than it has to be.”
Scott Wong and Mike Lillis contributed. Updated at 3:35 p.m.