GOP split on immigration is a crisis for Ryan’s team

GOP split on immigration is a crisis for Ryan’s team
© Greg Nash

Momentum is building for an insurgent effort by centrist Republicans to force immigration votes on the House floor despite GOP leadership’s attempt to tamp down the rebellion. 

The unfolding legislative battle is a nightmare for Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Sanders set to shake up 2020 race McCabe: No one in 'Gang of Eight' objected to FBI probe into Trump Unscripted Trump keeps audience guessing in Rose Garden MORE (R-Wis.) and his lieutenants, because it exposes a fervent intraparty split in the GOP and pits leadership against many of the politically vulnerable members that are key to saving the Republican majority this fall. 

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A pair of GOP lawmakers on Wednesday signed on to a discharge petition that would set up a series of votes on immigration bills on the House floor later this year. The move came just hours after party leaders pleaded with rank-and-file members to stand down.

Rep. John KatkoJohn Michael KatkoThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Sanders set to shake up 2020 race House Dems release 2020 GOP 'retirements to watch' for Overnight Defense: Gillibrand offers bill to let transgender troops serve | Pentagon ready to protect US personnel in Venezuela | Dems revive fight with Trump over Saudis MORE (R-N.Y.), a leader of the moderate Tuesday Group, and Rep. Dave TrottDavid Alan TrottMeet the lawmakers putting politics aside to save our climate Michigan New Members 2019 Democrats flip Michigan seat in race between two political newcomers MORE (R-Mich.), who is retiring from Congress, both signed their names to the petition, becoming the 19th and 20th Republicans to do so.

Now, just five more Republican signatures are needed to force the immigration votes if all 193 Democrats join the effort.

“We will have more Republicans signing on this week, and a lot more Democrats signing on. I am confident we all have the votes we need,” said Rep. Jeff DenhamJeffrey (Jeff) John DenhamCrazy California an outlier? No, we are the canary in the coal mine Polling editor says news outlets should be more cautious calling elections Rep. Valadao officially concedes in California race MORE (R-Calif.), who is leading the effort with Reps. Carlos CurbeloCarlos Luis CurbeloDems think they're beating Trump in emergency declaration battle Trump suggests Heller lost reelection bid because he was 'hostile' during 2016 presidential campaign Trey Gowdy joins Fox News as a contributor MORE (R-Fla.) and Will HurdWilliam Ballard HurdWhite House, GOP defend Trump emergency declaration GOP rep: Trump emergency declaration puts US in 'uncharted territory' Immigration groups press for pairing Dreamer benefits with border security MORE (R-Texas). All three lawmakers are facing challenging elections this fall.

Denham added, “I’m not saying when our timeline is. I’m saying we have enough commitments to make sure we’re going to be successful.”

The coming days will see a battle for those remaining five votes. Denham and Rep. Fred UptonFrederick (Fred) Stephen UptonThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Sanders set to shake up 2020 race House Dems release 2020 GOP 'retirements to watch' for Bill Clinton jokes no one would skip Dingell's funeral: 'Only time' we could get the last word MORE (R-Mich.), who are leading the discharge whip operation, will be targeting those who have spoken favorably of the “Dreamer” issue but have yet to sign.

But those same Republicans are being whipped by GOP leadership not to sign. Ryan and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthyKevin Owen McCarthySteve King asks for Congressional Record correction over white supremacist quote Steve King urges supporters to pray for his committee assignments to be restored: report Congress allows Violence Against Women Act to lapse MORE (R-Calif.) reiterated during a closed-door meeting with Republicans on Wednesday that such a petition effectively cedes control of the floor to Democrats.

McCarthy’s warning to GOP colleagues was even more dire: If a discharge petition goes forward, he said, it could cost Republicans the House majority in the November midterm elections.

“I disagree with his assessment, but there were a number of members of leadership that were expressing those concerns,” said Denham, who represents an agriculture-heavy district in the Central Valley. 

Among the targeted lawmakers are retiring Reps. Frank LoBiondoFrank Alo LoBiondoLoBiondo launches consulting firm Live coverage: House elects new Speaker as Dems take charge The Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by The Embassy of the United Arab Emirates — George H.W. Bush lies in state | NRCC suffers major hack | Crunch-time for Congress MORE (R-N.J.) and Joe BartonJoe Linus BartonGOP trading fancy offices, nice views for life in minority Privacy legislation could provide common ground for the newly divided Congress Texas New Members 2019 MORE (R-Texas), along with moderate Reps. Adam KinzingerAdam Daniel KinzingerGOP rep deployed to southern border with Air National Guard unit GOP rep: Trump needs to ‘quit complimenting Kim Jong Un’ GOP compares Ocasio-Cortez to Trump MORE (R-Ill.), Chris StewartChristopher (Chris) Douglas StewartBill Kristol resurfaces video of Pence calling Obama executive action on immigration a 'profound mistake' GOP lawmaker calls Trump emergency declaration 'a mistake' The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by the American Academy of HIV Medicine - Will there be any last-minute shutdown drama? MORE (R-Utah), Bruce PoliquinBruce Lee PoliquinMaine governor certifies Dem's win in disputed House race, but calls it 'stolen election' GOP lawmaker to drop challenge to Maine's new voting system GOP lawmaker to appeal judge's ruling upholding Maine's new voting system MORE (R-Maine), Dan NewhouseDaniel (Dan) Milton NewhouseImmigration groups press for pairing Dreamer benefits with border security Trump leaves GOP in turmoil with shutdown looming Washington governor announces killer whale recovery plan MORE (R-Wash.), David YoungDavid Edmund YoungIowa New Members 2019 McCarthy defeats Jordan for minority leader in 159-to-43 vote Dem Axne beats GOP Rep. Young in Iowa MORE (R-Iowa) and Tom ReedThomas (Tom) W. ReedDems ready aggressive response to Trump emergency order, as GOP splinters Dems hit GOP on pre-existing conditions at panel's first policy hearing A rare display of real political courage MORE (R-N.Y.), co-chairman of the Problem Solvers Caucus. 

Other possible signers, such as Reps. David JoyceDavid Patrick JoyceDem chairwoman seeks watchdog probe of Park Service’s shutdown operations Marijuana industry boosts DC lobbying team Here are the lawmakers who will forfeit their salaries during the shutdown MORE (R-Ohio) and Brian MastBrian Jeffrey MastDems escalate gun fight a year after Parkland House panel advances bill to expand background checks for gun sales House Dems unveil initial GOP targets in 2020 MORE (R-Fla.), say they stand in solidarity with pro-immigration backers; they just don’t like the legislative procedures that are being used.

“That is not a tactic I think we should employ,” Joyce, a member of the Tuesday Group, told The Hill.

Vulnerable Rep. Barbara ComstockBarbara Jean ComstockGOP lawmaker introduces bill to stop revolving door Ex-lawmakers face new scrutiny over lobbying Trump suggests Heller lost reelection bid because he was 'hostile' during 2016 presidential campaign MORE (R-Va.), a close leadership ally, said she’s against discharge petitions in general but added that she expects Congress to move on immigration soon.

“I think we’ve got to get everybody in a room and keep working on this like we’ve been trying to,” she said.

The backers of the discharge petition are desperate to vote on legislation to help recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program before the midterms. Trump is ending the Obama-era program that allows immigrants came to the United States illegally as children to live, work and attend school without fear of deportation.

But the courts have blocked Trump from rescinding DACA, taking away the original March 5 deadline — and the sense of urgency — for Congress to come up with a permanent solution.

GOP leaders assured members during Wednesday’s conference meeting that they are still working to bring an immigration bill to the floor. Under new pressure, Ryan and McCarthy met with Trump at the White House on Tuesday to try to come up with legislation that would have the backing of Republicans, Democrats and the president.

“We don’t want to advance something that won’t become law and just get vetoed even if it made it to the president’s desk,” Ryan told reporters Wednesday. “We want to advance something that has a chance of going into law that the president supports.”

After the petition hit its 20th signature, the top four members of leadership — along with Deputy Whip Patrick McHenryPatrick Timothy McHenryOn The Money: Consumer bureau proposes scrapping borrower safeguards from payday loan rule | Negotiators running out of time to avert shutdown | Trump nominates World Bank critic as its next chief On The Money: Shutdown Day 26 | Pelosi calls on Trump to delay State of the Union | Cites 'security concerns' | DHS chief says they can handle security | Waters lays out agenda | Senate rejects effort to block Trump on Russia sanctions Local banks can lead bipartisan efforts on financial regulation MORE (R-N.C.) — huddled with both the discharge backers and opponents in separate meetings on Wednesday night. 

Curbelo, Upton and Denham said leaders kicked around some ideas for an immigration bill. Curbelo emphasized that they aren’t on the edge of a deal yet, but described the meeting as “productive” and “moving in the right direction.” 

“Clearly we have had a positive impact on leadership and on this institution, because now this issue is being taken seriously,” Curbelo told reporters outside of Ryan’s office. “We have our plan, we’re sticking to it, but we’re willing to see what theirs looks like.”

But if leadership does not bring immigration legislation to the floor in the coming weeks, more Republicans have warned they may sign the petition.

“I do reserve the right to, if leadership doesn’t keep their word and bring some bills to the floor pretty quickly,” said Barton, who is a co-sponsor of the DREAM Act. 

If the effort does secure 218 signatures, there is little Ryan and his top lieutenants can do to stop the effort. But there are a few options that discharge opponents are pressing them to use.

A House rule says discharge petitions can only be considered on the second and fourth Mondays of each month. So one idea is to have Ryan cancel those days that the House is in session — a move that would enrage discharge backers.

The other controversial idea, pushed by members of the far-right House Freedom Caucus, is to have Ryan bring up a standalone vote on a more conservative immigration bill sponsored by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob GoodlatteRobert (Bob) William GoodlatteIt’s time for Congress to pass an anti-cruelty statute DOJ opinion will help protect kids from dangers of online gambling House GOP probe into FBI, DOJ comes to an end MORE (R-Va.) and House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaulMichael Thomas McCaulHouse Dems release 2020 GOP 'retirements to watch' for House passes bill to end US support for Saudi war in Yemen Congress poised to put Trump in veto bind MORE (R-Texas). Lawmakers say that would effectively kill the discharge petition because it calls for votes on various immigration bills — including Goodlatte-McCaul.

Supporters of the petition could just file a new petition, but it would force them to restart the clock. They also would lose at least one signature, because former Rep. Charlie DentCharles (Charlie) Wieder DentThe Hill's Morning Report - Government is funded, but for how long? Ex-GOP lawmaker says his party is having a 'Monty Python' moment on shutdown Former GOP lawmaker: Republicans know shutdown is ‘a fight they cannot win’ MORE (R-Pa.) has left Congress since signing the petition.

“We are nervous that we think this immigration thing is coming quickly,” said Rep. Jim JordanJames (Jim) Daniel JordanWhite House, GOP defend Trump emergency declaration Rod Rosenstein’s final insult to Congress: Farewell time for reporters but not testimony House conservatives blast border deal, push Trump to use executive power MORE (R-Ohio), a Freedom Caucus leader. “So we’re trying to figure out ways we can do right on immigration.”

Some Freedom Caucus members said they would be willing to back a pending GOP farm bill if Ryan agrees to put the standalone bill from Goodlatte and McCaul on the floor to derail the discharge petition. 

While leadership wants to pass the farm bill, a vote on the Goodlatte-McCaul legislation — which does not have the votes to pass now — could be politically embarrassing and force members to take a position on a bill that has little chance to become law this year.

It’s unclear whether leadership is seriously considering the idea; Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark MeadowsMark Randall MeadowsThe Hill's Morning Report — Presented by the American Academy of HIV Medicine — Trump, Congress prepare for new border wall fight Winners and losers in the border security deal GOP braces for Trump's emergency declaration MORE (R-N.C.) and several other members met with leaders on Wednesday night.

And Denham pointed out that the idea would only work if enough GOP lawmakers agreed to support the rule allowing the Goodlatte-McCaul  bill to come to the floor. Democrats routinely vote against such procedural motions.

“If they’re going to bring up a bill, that bill also has to come up on a rule first,” Denham said, “and I don’t think the rule would have enough votes.”