Key House chairman floats changes to immigration bill

After resisting for months, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) is proposing changes to his conservative immigration bill to attract more support before the measure receives a floor vote next month. 

While it’s unclear whether Goodlatte is working under the direction of GOP leadership, the effort follows a conference call over the weekend — and a flurry of leadership meetings over the last week — designed to find a path forward on the hot-button issue.

{mosads}Goodlatte’s immigration and enforcement measure, which leaders agreed to bring to the floor in June after facing pressure from conservatives, is currently shy of the 218 votes needed to pass. But the retiring chairman has been floating a modified version to try and bring moderate Republicans and other offices onboard, according to a copy of the text obtained by The Hill.

“We continue to have discussions with members and build support for the bill so that we have the votes needed to pass the Securing America’s Future Act in the House,” a Republican aide for the Judiciary Committee said in a statement to The Hill.

The proposed changes would address areas that drew criticism in earlier drafts, particularly from business-minded conservatives and the agricultural sector. Still, the modified version would move the country’s immigration system toward the merit-based structure preferred by immigration hard-liners.

“I’m glad there’s lots of attention being paid to [my bill],” Goodlatte told reporters last week. 

GOP leaders are grappling with an insurgent effort by centrist Republicans to force a series of immigration votes on the House floor using a discharge petition. The frustrated lawmakers, who appear to be within striking distance of the 218 signatures needed to force the votes, are desperate for action on legislation providing a permanent solution for the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program that President Trump is ending. 

But Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and his top lieutenants have warned rank-and-file members that a discharge petition would hand over power to the minority and would likely result in legislation passing the House that is mostly carried by Democrats.

In recent days, GOP leadership has floated an alternative plan to hold a series of immigration votes on bills picked by Republican leaders the week of June 17, according to sources familiar with the discussions.

One of the bills that would get a vote under that scenario is the hard-line measure from Goodlatte that includes a basket of conservative immigration and enforcement priorities.

The initial proposal would have provided DACA recipients with a temporary, three-year legal status that could be renewed indefinitely, but immigrants would not be offered a path to citizenship. 

The measure would authorize $30 billion to build a border wall and invest in other border security measures, end family-based migration and end the diversity visa lottery program. 

It also would mandate the use of E-Verify, a system that crosschecks every new employment contract with a federal immigration status database; 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. 

But despite buy-in from key committee chairs, the bill has so far failed to attract enough Republican support to pass the House, which is why leadership had been reluctant to put it on the floor.

“We are going to bring the Goodlatte–McCaul bill to the floor. I think that’s the right answer,” House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) told Fox News on Sunday. “Unfortunately, the votes aren’t there yet to pass it. We are working on some other alternatives with President Trump so that we can be in sync.”

Now, with the legislation likely to receive a floor vote next month, Goodlatte is hoping to win over more lawmakers by softening some aspect of the legislation. 

One of the major proposed changes would expand the renewable legal status for DACA recipients from three years to six years, though they still would not be granted citizenship.

The modified version also doubles the cap for the family-sponsored green cards from 7 percent to 15 percent; creates a new green-card category to allow for 6,000 nurses; and allows children who are U.S. citizens and sponsoring their parents to come to the U.S. to sign an affidavit of support.

Goodlatte already made some minor tweaks earlier this year to appease the agricultural industry’s concerns over the guest worker program that is established by the legislation. But lawmakers from agricultural regions said the changes weren’t enough.

Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Calif.), who represents the Golden State’s agriculture-heavy Central Valley and is leading the discharge petition push, said at the time that the cap on seasonal workers was still too low and the “touchback” provisions did not provide strong enough guarantees that workers will be able to come back to the U.S. once they return to their home countries. 

Goodlatte’s new proposal would make additional tweaks to the bill’s agriculture section, such as eliminating a requirement that guest workers prove they have a residence in a foreign country that they don’t intend on abandoning; ensuring that guest workers don’t need to wait for a visa while they touch back to their home countries; and providing 40,000 new visas for meat and poultry processors.

But it’s unclear whether the changes will be enough to win over Denham and other moderate Republicans who are aggressively pushing for a DACA fix.

Goodlatte met with the leaders of the Republican Study Committee (RSC), Freedom Caucus, Tuesday Group and Republican Main Street Partnership on Monday to discuss some of the proposed changes to his bill, among other issues, according to RSC Chairman Mark Walker (R-N.C.).  

In addition to the Goodlatte bill, GOP leaders have also promised to hold a floor vote on more moderate immigration legislation that could get 218 votes — the details of which have not yet been hammered out. 

Reaching a deal on that second bill, however, is likely to be challenging. And there are also questions about whether the far-right House Freedom Caucus would even support a rule allowing a moderate immigration bill to come to the floor, especially if it grants citizenship to so-called Dreamers.

After the caucus torpedoed a GOP farm bill last week because they wanted stronger assurances about the vote on Goodlatte’s measure, leaders warned that more frustrated Republicans were likely to sign on to the discharge petition.

“Don’t be surprised if there’s a discharge petition that comes out as a result of this, because I think there are a lot of members on my side of the aisle concerned that they are not relevant anymore,” Rep. Dennis Ross (R-Fla.), a senior member of the GOP whip team, said Friday.

“I think you’re going to see some members on the Republican side who are more inclined to do a discharge petition in order to at least get something done.” 

—Rafael Bernal contributed. Updated at 6:56 p.m.

Tags Bob Goodlatte Dennis Ross Donald Trump Jeff Denham Mark Walker Paul Ryan Steve Scalise

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