Tensions on immigration erupt in the House GOP

House Republican leaders are scrambling to stop an effort by rank-and-file members to force votes on immigration, with lawmakers openly defying their calls to stand down. 

Centrist 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.), Jeff DenhamJeffrey (Jeff) John DenhamBottom line Bottom line Lobbying world MORE (Calif.) and Will HurdWilliam Ballard HurdKaren Bass's star rises after leading police reform push The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - States are pausing reopening Democrats release bilingual ads on police reform bill MORE (Texas), all Republicans facing tough reelection races, introduced a discharge petition on Wednesday morning to trigger a series of immigration votes. Discharge petitions are traditionally seen as a serious affront to leadership, making members reluctant to sign on.

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Yet the effort quickly caught fire, gaining new supporters throughout the day. By press time, at least 17 GOP lawmakers had endorsed the petition, just eight short of the 25 Republican votes that would be needed if every Democrat also backed it.

Facing the prospect of a potentially divisive floor debate ahead of the midterm elections, GOP leaders on Wednesday afternoon made a public plea for members to abandon the petition, calling it the wrong approach.

“I don’t believe in discharge petitions. You’re turning the floor over. I think it’s better to use the legislative process,” Majority Leader Kevin McCarthyKevin Owen McCarthyOn The Money: Breaking down the June jobs report | The biggest threats facing the recovery | What will the next stimulus bill include? McCarthy to offer bill withholding funds from states that don't protect statues McCarthy calls on Pelosi to condemn 'mob violence' after toppling of St. Junipero Serra statue MORE (R-Calif.), who controls what bills come to the House floor, told reporters. 

House Majority Whip Steve ScaliseStephen (Steve) Joseph ScaliseCheney clashes with Trump The Hill's Morning Report - Republicans shift, urge people to wear masks GOP-Trump fractures on masks open up MORE (R-La.) said he isn’t actively whipping against the discharge petition, but said he has told lawmakers it’s “not the way to legislate.”

“I’ve talked to some members about the importance of keeping control of the legislative vehicle and solving the problem on our terms where we focus on solutions, not politics,” he said.

In phone calls and one-on-one conversations, members of GOP leadership have been asking centrist Republicans whether they plan to support the petition.

“They are making calls,” one GOP lawmaker backing the petition said.

Some of these conversations have been more aggressive than others.

“I know [GOP leaders] … tried to talk them out of it,” Rep. Mike CoffmanMichael (Mike) Howard CoffmanColorado governor directs officials to reexamine death of Elijah McClain in police custody Petition demanding justice for Elijah McClain surpasses 2 million signatures Ethics controversy rattles Hickenlooper's Senate bid MORE (R-Colo.), who has signed on to the petition and is facing a tough reelection race, told The Hill. “The people that told me said that it didn’t change their mind.” 

Scalise and the leadership team says it would be better for members to back an immigration bill authored by Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob GoodlatteRobert (Bob) William GoodlatteUSCIS chief Cuccinelli blames Paul Ryan for immigration inaction Immigrant advocacy groups shouldn't be opposing Trump's raids Top Republican releases full transcript of Bruce Ohr interview MORE (R-Va.) and Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaulMichael Thomas McCaulNational security adviser says Trump was not briefed on bounty intelligence, condemns leaks Pentagon: 'No corroborating evidence' yet to validate troop bounty allegations The Hill's Morning Report - Officials crack down as COVID-19 cases soar MORE (R-Texas). The bill would grant temporary protections to recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program while enacting tough illegal immigration enforcement measures and restricting legal immigration.

That legislation, however, has attracted only 95 GOP co-sponsors and no Democrats.  

“In general, discharge petitions are bad legislative tactics because it undermines the majority,” Scalise, who runs the GOP’s vote-counting operation, told The Hill. 

“It would be an approach that would rely on mostly Democratic votes and some Republicans to pass their bill,” Scalise said, “and that’s not the way to solve this problem.”

Since 2002, only two discharge petitions have succeeded.

The most recent was in 2015, when former Rep. Stephen FincherStephen Lee FincherTrump announces, endorses ambassador to Japan's Tennessee Senate bid Lamar Alexander's exit marks end of an era in evolving Tennessee Tensions on immigration erupt in the House GOP MORE (R-Tenn.) collected enough signatures to force a floor vote renewing the Export-Import Bank. 

The political conditions at the time were unusual. Former Speaker John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerLott says lobbying firm cut ties to prevent him from taking clients Lobbying firm cuts ties to Trent Lott amid national anti-racism protests Bush, Romney won't support Trump reelection: NYT MORE (R-Ohio) had announced his retirement, and Fincher’s move to buck leadership so aggressively was widely considered to have the outgoing Speaker’s tacit support. BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerLott says lobbying firm cut ties to prevent him from taking clients Lobbying firm cuts ties to Trent Lott amid national anti-racism protests Bush, Romney won't support Trump reelection: NYT MORE backed the Ex-Im Bank even as other leaders, including McCarthy, opposed it. 

The final vote on the House floor was an overwhelming 313-118.

DACA supporters are hoping that Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanBush, Romney won't support Trump reelection: NYT Twitter joins Democrats to boost mail-in voting — here's why Lobbying world MORE (R-Wis.), who recently announced that he’s not running for reelection, will provide similar cover to Republicans endorsing the Curbelo petition. That could lead to a standoff against McCarthy, a close ally of President TrumpDonald John TrumpProtesters tear down statue of Christopher Columbus in Baltimore 'Independence Day' star Bill Pullman urges Americans to wear a 'freedom mask' in July 4 PSA Protesters burn American flag outside White House after Trump's July Fourth address MORE, who hopes to replace Ryan atop the party next year.

The arcane rules of the House on discharge petitions have often negated their effectiveness and discouraged members from introducing them. 

Petitions can be filed only after a bill has remained idle in committee for 30 legislative days. Members wishing to sign the document do so on the chamber floor.

If a petition does reach 218 sponsors, the bill still can’t be considered before the passage of seven more legislative days — and it can’t be considered on just any day. Bills discharged in this manner may be considered only on the second or fourth Monday of the month.

Despite the complications, Curbelo said a discharge petition was necessary.

“We wanted to work with our leadership and we knew that they were working this Goodlatte bill. We wanted to give them time to do it even if I was always really skeptical about it. Too much time has passed,” he said.

Along with Curbelo, Denham and Hurd, Reps. Mario Diaz-BalartMario Rafael Diaz-BalartPelosi asks House chairs to enforce mandatory mask-wearing during hearings House GOP lawmaker tests positive for COVID-19 The Hill's Coronavirus Report: Association of American Railroads Ian Jefferies says no place for hate, racism or bigotry in rail industry or society; Trump declares victory in response to promising jobs report MORE (R-Fla.) and David ValadaoDavid Goncalves ValadaoDemocratic Rep. Cox advances in California primary The 14 other key races to watch on Super Tuesday The biggest political upsets of the decade MORE (R-Calif.) signed on as initial co-sponsors for the discharge petition. All are facing competitive races this year, with Curbelo and Denham’s races seen as toss-ups by the Cook Political Report.

Rep. Ileana Ros-LehtinenIleana Carmen Ros-LehtinenTechNet hires Hispanic communications director Bottom line Women are refusing to take the backseat in politics, especially Latinas MORE (R-Fla.) — who is retiring at the end of the year — and Reps. 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 (R-Utah) and John FasoJohn James FasoThe most expensive congressional races of the last decade The 31 Trump districts that will determine the next House majority GOP House super PAC targets two freshman Dems with new ads MORE (R-N.Y.) also spoke in favor of the petition.

The lawmakers promoting the petition said they have been careful to keep leadership in the loop so as not to create a division within the GOP conference.

Denham informed Ryan on Tuesday that he planned to move forward with the discharge petition because he doesn’t “want any surprises,” he said.

But Ryan told him the discharge petition could end up allowing passage of legislation that’s ultimately vetoed by Trump, an argument that irks its supporters.

“It’s impossible to say the president will veto all these bills when the bills haven’t been finalized,” Curbelo said.

“This process will give the authors the opportunity to amend their laws, to modify them before presenting them, and it gives the Speaker of the House the opportunity to go to the White House, negotiate a bill and to present that bill. So that argument makes no sense,” he added.

The discharge petition would specifically force a vote on a “Queen of the Hill” rule that would lead to votes on a series of competing immigration proposals, one of which would be of Ryan’s choosing. Whichever measure won the most votes would be the legislation approved by the House.

The four proposals are all intended to be legislative replacements for DACA, which Trump rescinded in September.

Under DACA, about 690,000 “Dreamers” — immigrants who arrived in the country illegally as minors — were protected from deportation and allowed to work and go to school in the United States.

The Queen of the Hill rule that the GOP lawmakers have been pursuing would have the House choose between the hard-line proposal from Goodlatte; the DREAM Act, a proposal that would give a path to citizenship to 1.8 million Dreamers; the USA Act, a measure that would pair the Dream Act with $25 billion in border security funding; and Ryan’s proposal.

When it was introduced, the proposal quickly attracted a majority of the House, garnering 248 co-sponsors, including 52 Republicans.

Yet some of the Republican supporters of the Queen of the Hill rule have yet to back the discharge petition. 

“I believe in Denham’s bill. I’m a co-sponsor to the bill but I don’t believe in discharge petitions,” said Rep. Pete KingPeter (Pete) KingCheney clashes with Trump Coronavirus Report: The Hill's Steve Clemons interviews Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney On The Money: 3 million more Americans file for unemployment benefits | Sanders calls for Senate to 'improve' House Democrats' coronavirus bill | Less than 40 percent of small businesses have received emergency coronavirus loans MORE (R-N.Y.). 

“Not at this stage, anyway,” he added.

Rep. Glenn ThompsonGlenn (G.T.) W. ThompsonSheila Jackson Lee tops colleagues in House floor speaking days over past decade Koch campaign touts bipartisan group behind ag labor immigration bill Dreamers-for-wall trade going nowhere in House MORE (R-Pa.) not only rejected the discharge petition, but said he now wants to remove his name as a co-sponsor of the original Queen of the Hill resolution.

“My philosophy is, I don’t want just any immigration solution,” he said. “It has to be something that addresses agriculture’s needs, as well as some other righteous, important needs.”

Still, even Republicans who don’t support the effort to force a vote have grown tired of waiting.

“I think we’re past deadlines. Before we break for summer we really have to solve this issue, with DACA in particular,” said Rep. Tom MacArthurThomas (Tom) Charles MacArthurRepublicans plot comeback in New Jersey Republicans spend more than million at Trump properties The 31 Trump districts that will determine the next House majority MORE (R), who is facing a competitive race in New Jersey.

Mike Lillis, Melanie Zanona and Juliegrace Brufke contributed.