GOP nearing end game on immigration votes

House Republicans left Washington for their 11-day Memorial Day recess without solving the vexing immigration issue that is dividing them just months before the midterm elections.

Yet the effort by GOP centrists to force immigration votes gained steam before Thursday’s exit, suggesting Republican leaders may soon be forced to address legislation protecting the so-called Dreamers, perhaps as early as next month.

Two more Republicans and six Democrats signed their name Thursday to a discharge petition, leaving supporters just five signatures short of being able to bypass Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanCheney takes shot at Trump: 'I like Republican presidents who win re-election' Cheney allies flock to her defense against Trump challenge Paul Ryan researched narcissistic personality disorder after Trump win: book MORE (R-Wis.) and force a series of votes to protect hundreds of thousands of young, undocumented immigrants currently in the U.S.

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That leaves Ryan and GOP leaders with a narrow window to negotiate an agreement between the party’s warring conservative and centrist factions over legislation to salvage the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which President TrumpDonald TrumpJan. 6 committee chair says panel will issue a 'good number' of additional subpoenas Overnight Defense & National Security — Presented by AM General — Pentagon officials prepare for grilling Biden nominates head of Africa CDC to lead global AIDS response MORE wants to dismantle.

But the leading proponents of the petition say they have the support locked down to reach the magic number of 218, even if the final signatures have not yet materialized. Heading into the recess Thursday morning, some centrist Republicans indicated they might endorse the petition when Congress returns if GOP leaders are unable to secure a separate DACA deal by June 7.

Leadership has scheduled a two-hour, all-conference immigration meeting for that very day.

“Everybody’s negotiating still,” said Rep. Dennis RossDennis Alan RossBiden faces lasting blemish from Afghanistan exit Biden needs a Middle East strategy to avoid new crises Biden ramps up pressure on Iran as it grapples with protests MORE (R-Fla.), a senior deputy whip. “So we’re giving them 10 days to see what happens. At least I am.”

Ross said he might sign the petition when Congress returns to Washington in June, but added, “I’m not there yet.”

Rep. Tom ReedTom ReedThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Alibaba - Democrats argue price before policy amid scramble Fifth House Republican comes out in support of bipartisan infrastructure bill Democratic leaders racing toward Monday infrastructure vote MORE (R-N.Y.) was not as patient. The co-chairman of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, Reed endorsed the petition on the House floor during Thursday’s votes. Rep. Brian FitzpatrickBrian K. FitzpatrickThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Alibaba - Democrats argue price before policy amid scramble Fifth House Republican comes out in support of bipartisan infrastructure bill Democratic leaders racing toward Monday infrastructure vote MORE (R-Pa.) added his name a short time later, bringing the number of Republican signatures up to 23.

"I gave them my word I'd sign before I left," Reed told The Hill on Thursday. "Leadership and the Freedom Caucus needed to see continuing movement toward arming the [discharge-petition] device. They are truly in the final stage of making a deal. If they don't, all bets are off." 

GOP leaders are desperately trying to head off the discharge push by coming up with a solution that satisfies both centrist Republicans and those in the hard-right House Freedom Caucus. The centrists say they want nothing short of a permanent solution for recipients of the DACA program — including eventual citizenship opportunities — while immigration hard-liners dismiss a “special” path to citizenship as amnesty for undocumented immigrants.

Rep. Carlos CurbeloCarlos Luis CurbeloNation's fraught politics leads to fear, scars and exits Direct air capture is a crucial bipartisan climate policy Biden's corporate tax hike is bad for growth — try a carbon tax instead MORE (R-Fla.), the centrist sponsor of the discharge petition, said there’s room for compromise between those two positions. 

“This is a technical issue. For us, it’s important that young immigrants brought to the country as children — the victims of the immigration system — have a bridge into the legal immigration system,” he said. “And no one at any of our meetings has said that that’s unacceptable.” 

The leaders of the Freedom Caucus are fighting to sink the discharge petition, fearing it will empower the minority Democrats to send their preferred DACA bill to the Senate — and keep the conservative base at home come Election Day. Freedom Caucus leaders are pushing to secure a vote on their favored bill, sponsored by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob GoodlatteRobert (Bob) William GoodlatteThe job of shielding journalists is not finished Bottom line No documents? Hoping for legalization? Be wary of Joe Biden MORE (R-Va.). That measure would provide temporary legal protections for Dreamers, but no pathway to citizenship. Last week, those conservatives killed the Republicans’ farm bill because GOP leaders refused to vote first on the Goodlatte proposal. 

Yet the Goodlatte bill lacks the Republican support to pass the House, let alone the Senate. And Democrats view the severe enforcement provisions in the bill as a non-starter. House Minority Leader Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiManchin cast doubt on deal this week for .5T spending bill Obama says US 'desperately needs' Biden legislation ahead of key votes Congress shows signs of movement on stalled Biden agenda MORE (D-Calif.) on Thursday referred to the legislation as “the Make America White Again bill.”

GOP negotiators appeared to make some progress Wednesday during a lengthy meeting in the Capitol office of House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthyKevin McCarthyHouse GOP campaign arm ties vulnerable Democrats to Biden in new ads The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Alibaba - Democrats argue price before policy amid scramble Fifth House Republican comes out in support of bipartisan infrastructure bill MORE (R-Calif.). McCarthy’s California colleague, Rep. Jeff DenhamJeffrey (Jeff) John DenhamBottom line Bottom line Business groups breathe sigh of relief over prospect of divided government MORE (R), a key centrist negotiator, told reporters Thursday that he left the meeting believing he had a “deal in principle” with GOP leaders and Freedom Caucus members.  

“It involved a permanent fix for Dreamers,” Denham said as he descended the Capitol steps.

But Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark MeadowsMark MeadowsJan. 6 committee chair says panel will issue a 'good number' of additional subpoenas Graham told Trump he 'f'd up' his presidency: book Executive privilege fight poses hurdles for Trump MORE (R-N.C.), who attended that gathering, told The Hill that Denham misspoke, even while saying that talks were moving in the right direction. 

“Flights were delayed and travel arrangements were adjusted to continue negotiations” on Thursday, Meadows said. “This would not have occurred if progress was not being made.”

Failure to reach an agreement would lend new urgency to the push for Curbelo’s discharge petition, a procedural gambit that rarely works because it forces members of the majority party to buck their own leadership. Curbelo, Denham and several other leaders of the discharge petition effort all represent districts with heavy Hispanic populations, and all are facing tough reelection contests in November. 

If all 193 House Democrats were to endorse the petition, Curbelo would need 25 Republicans to hit the 218 mark — two more than have currently signed on. But three Texas border Democrats are holding out — Reps. Filemon VelaFilemon Bartolome VelaThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Alibaba - Democrats stare down 'hell' week Don't let partisan politics impede Texas' economic recovery WHIP LIST: How House Democrats say they'll vote on infrastructure bill MORE, Vicente Gonzalez and Henry Cuellar — citing concerns that the process would lead to new border wall construction. And at least one of those Democrats says his opposition is immoveable.

“I’m not in the middle on that thing,” Vela warned Wednesday. “I’m a ‘no.’”

Those close to leadership say they’re confident that Ryan will find a way to bridge the divide, thereby defusing the internal fight over the discharge petition. 

“All parties are working together in good faith,” said Rep. Ann WagnerAnn Louise WagnerConservative women's group endorses Sarah Huckabee Sanders for Arkansas governor FOSTA is model for reforming Section 230 Navy admiral criticizes defense contractors over lobbying efforts MORE (R-Mo.), who is close to leadership. “I’ve very hopeful they’ll be able to work out a deal.” 

In the meantime, as lawmakers return home for the Memorial Day recess, Democrats are predicting the GOP holdouts are in for an earful from pro-DACA constituents.

“It’s going to be very loud for some of these members,” said Rep. Peter Aguilar (D-Calif.). 

Juliegrace Brufke contributed.