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 Hill's Morning Report — Sponsored by Better Medicare Alliance — Cuomo wins and Manafort plea deal Hillicon Valley: North Korean IT firm hit with sanctions | Zuckerberg says Facebook better prepared for midterms | Big win for privacy advocates in Europe | Bezos launches B fund to help children, homeless Bipartisan trio asks US intelligence to investigate ‘deepfakes’ MORE (Fla.), Jeff DenhamJeffrey (Jeff) John DenhamTrump attacks Dems on farm bill House Republicans push for vote on Violence Against Women Act Steyer group launching 0,000 digital ad campaign targeting millennials MORE (Calif.) and Will HurdWilliam Ballard HurdDem introduces bill to create federal cybersecurity apprenticeship program Koch group launches digital ads in tight Texas House race Gingrich: Bushes view themselves as closer to Obamas, Clintons than to Trump 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 McCarthyThe Hill's Morning Report — Sponsored by United Against Nuclear Iran — Kavanaugh confirmation in sudden turmoil GOP: The economy will shield us from blue wave Jordan hits campaign trail amid bid for Speaker MORE (R-Calif.), who controls what bills come to the House floor, told reporters. 

House Majority Whip Steve ScaliseStephen (Steve) Joseph ScaliseOn The Money: Senate approves 4B spending bill | China imposes new tariffs on billion in US goods | Ross downplays new tariffs: 'Nobody's going to actually notice' Scalise tells Canada: Make a deal on trade or be left behind GOP: The economy will shield us from blue wave 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 CoffmanOvernight Health Care: Kavanaugh questioned if Roe v. Wade was 'settled law' in leaked email | Senate to vote next week on opioid package | Officials seek to jail migrant children indefinitely | HHS chief, lawmakers meet over drug prices Trump's woman problem may cost the GOP the House Catholic advocacy group to protest Trump tax law at Mar-a-Lago 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 GoodlatteVirginia reps urge Trump to declare federal emergency ahead of Hurricane Florence Republicans mull new punishments for dissident lawmakers Republicans ready to grill Bruce Ohr as Trump-DOJ feud escalates MORE (R-Va.) and Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaulMichael Thomas McCaulHillicon Valley: Manafort to cooperate with Mueller probe | North Korea blasts US over cyber complaint | Lawmakers grill Google over China censorship | Bezos to reveal HQ2 location by year's end Overnight Defense: Details on defense spending bill | NATO chief dismisses talk of renaming HQ for McCain | North Korea warns US over cyber allegations Bipartisan House group presses Google over China censorship 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 FincherTensions on immigration erupt in the House GOP Trump backs Blackburn's Tennessee Senate bid Corker backs Blackburn for Senate seat after retirement tensions 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 BoehnerJordan hits campaign trail amid bid for Speaker GOP senator says he 'regularly' considers leaving Republican Party Republicans mull new punishments for dissident lawmakers 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 BoehnerJordan hits campaign trail amid bid for Speaker GOP senator says he 'regularly' considers leaving Republican Party Republicans mull new punishments for dissident lawmakers 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 RyanCorey Stewart fires aide who helped bring far-right ideas to campaign: report GOP super PAC hits Randy Bryce with ad starring his brother Super PACs spend big in high-stakes midterms 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 TrumpTrump: I hope voters pay attention to Dem tactics amid Kavanaugh fight South Korea leader: North Korea agrees to take steps toward denuclearization Graham calls handling of Kavanaugh allegations 'a drive-by shooting' 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-BalartJeb Bush campaigns with Rick Scott in Florida GOP shrugs off Trump shutdown threat Trump faces long odds in avoiding big spending bill MORE (R-Fla.) and David ValadaoDavid Goncalves ValadaoDems make big play for House in California Immigration overhaul on life support in the House The Hill's 12:30 Report 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-LehtinenThe Hill's Morning Report — Sponsored by Better Medicare Alliance — Cuomo wins and Manafort plea deal Trump's Puerto Rico tweets spark backlash GOP lawmaker tears into Trump's 'warped mind' after tweet questioning Puerto Rico death toll MORE (R-Fla.) — who is retiring at the end of the year — and Reps. Mia LoveLudmya (Mia) LovePregnant and imprisoned: The crisis thousands of women are facing Election Countdown: What to watch in final primaries | Dems launch M ad buy for Senate races | Senate seats most likely to flip | Trump slump worries GOP | Koch network's new super PAC GOP lawmaker to refund some donations FEC says were raised improperly: report MORE (R-Utah) and John FasoJohn James Faso'Law & Order: SVU' star wins court case, gets on ballot in NY congressional district Preventing violence isn’t partisan: Time to reauthorize Violence Against Women Act Five things to watch for in New York primaries 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) Thomas KingOn The Money: Broad coalition unites against Trump tariffs | Senate confirms new IRS chief | Median household income rose for third straight year in 2017 | Jamie Dimon's brief battle with Trump Blue-state Republicans say they will vote against 'tax cuts 2.0' if it extends SALT cap Hillicon Valley: Twitter chief faces GOP anger over bias | DOJ convenes meeting on bias claims | Rubio clashes with Alex Jones | DHS chief urges lawmakers to pass cyber bill | Sanders bill takes aim at Amazon MORE (R-N.Y.). 

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

Rep. Glenn ThompsonGlenn (G.T.) W. ThompsonLawmakers clash over future of coal Overnight Health Care — Presented by the Association of American Medical Colleges — Trump officials move to expand non-ObamaCare health plans | 'Zero tolerance' policy stirs fears in health community | New ObamaCare repeal plan Tensions on immigration erupt in the House GOP 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 MacArthurElection handicapper moves 10 races toward Dems Election Countdown: GOP worries House majority endangered by top of ticket | Dems make history in Tuesday's primaries | Parties fight for Puerto Rican vote in Florida | GOP lawmakers plan 'Freedom Tour' Cook Political Report moves 4 GOP seats to 'toss-up' category MORE (R), who is facing a competitive race in New Jersey.

Mike Lillis, Melanie Zanona and Juliegrace Brufke contributed.