GOP leaders scramble to contain immigration rebellion

Republican leaders are facing long odds as they scramble to thwart an internal rebellion over immigration just months before November’s midterm elections.

The leaders are attempting to broker a deal that satisfies competing factions of their restive conference and defuses a push by mutinous centrists threatening to force action to protect undocumented immigrants in a series of head-to-head floor votes that would highlight deep GOP divisions over an issue that has long been radioactive within the party.

The dispute has centered largely on what legal protections should be extended to those living in the country illegally, and to whom they should apply — thorny enough questions on their own. But the leaders’ effort was further complicated on Thursday, when President TrumpDonald John TrumpDC board rejects Trump Hotel effort to dismiss complaint seeking removal of liquor license on basis of Trump's 'character' DC board rejects Trump Hotel effort to dismiss complaint seeking removal of liquor license on basis of Trump's 'character' Mexico's immigration chief resigns amid US pressure over migrants MORE warned that he'd veto any bill to shore up the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program if it fails to fund his favored wall at the U.S.-Mexico border.

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“Unless it improves a wall — and I mean a wall, a real wall — and unless it improves very strong border security, there’ll be no approvals from me, because I have to either approve it or not,” Trump said in an interview with Fox News Channel.

The president’s demand is just the latest headache for Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanIndiana GOP Rep. Brooks says she won't seek reelection Indiana GOP Rep. Brooks says she won't seek reelection Inside Biden's preparations for first debate MORE (R-Wis.) and his leadership team, who are in delicate negotiations to appease both the reform-minded centrists — whose discharge petition is inching closer to the 218 signatures it needs to force a vote — and conservative immigration hard-liners vowing to oppose any proposal that would, in their eyes, provide “amnesty” to immigrants in the country illegally.

Ryan, in reluctantly taking the Speaker’s gavel in 2015, had promised members of the far-right Freedom Caucus that he wouldn’t consider any immigration bill that lacks the backing of a majority of Republicans — a vow those conservatives haven’t forgotten almost 30 months later. And the Speaker’s lame-duck status — he’s retiring at the end of the year — has only weakened his hand as he tries to exert control over his troops and avoid an all-out immigration fight heading into elections where the issue is sure to play a prominent role.

“What we're trying to do is find where the consensus sweet spot is,” Ryan told reporters in the Capitol last week. “Immigration is an issue that has a lot of passionate positions.”

Hovering over the debate through the Memorial Day recess is the centrists’ claim that their discharge petition — a rarely used procedural step to force votes to the floor against the wishes of majority party leaders — already has enough Republican support to hit the 218 mark if Ryan fails to orchestrate a deal quickly when Congress returns to Washington early next month.

“They are at the point where they are confident I've got more than 218 votes,” said Rep. Jeff DenhamJeffrey (Jeff) John DenhamEx-GOP Rep. Denham heads to lobbying firm Crazy California an outlier? No, we are the canary in the coal mine Polling editor says news outlets should be more cautious calling elections MORE (R-Calif.), one of the leading forces behind the discharge petition. “They want to get [a deal] done.”

The window for reaching such an agreement, though, is closing quickly. Republicans will huddle in the Capitol on June 7 for a two-hour meeting designed to reach a consensus. If none emerges, then more Republicans are expected to endorse the discharge petition, forcing votes on several immigration bills as early as June 25.

“I believe the drop-dead date is June 7,” said Rep. Dennis RossDennis Alan RossEx-GOP lawmaker joins family firm  Ex-GOP lawmaker joins Florida lobbying firm Incoming GOP lawmaker says he may have violated campaign finance law MORE (R-Fla.), a senior deputy whip, who has not endorsed the petition but remains open to doing so. “We’re giving them 10 days to see what happens.”

Ryan, last year, had promised the Freedom Caucus a vote on their preferred immigration bill, a conservative proposal championed by Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob GoodlatteRobert (Bob) William GoodlatteTop Republican releases full transcript of Bruce Ohr interview It’s time for Congress to pass an anti-cruelty statute DOJ opinion will help protect kids from dangers of online gambling MORE (R-Va.), and they’re frustrated with the Speaker’s inaction since then. In its current form, the proposal lacks the backing to pass the House, but conservatives want an opportunity to show their support nonetheless.

“There are some of us who, even with the Goodlatte bill, believe that a slight amendment here or there may get us to 218,” Rep. Mark MeadowsMark Randall MeadowsRep. Amash stokes talk of campaign against Trump Rep. Amash stokes talk of campaign against Trump House Oversight votes to hold Barr, Ross in contempt MORE (R-N.C.), chairman of the Freedom Caucus.

“We’re tired of talking about it. We think it’s time to vote,” he said.

If the discharge petition were to succeed, it would prompt a “Queen of the Hill” process featuring votes on four separate proposals: the conservative Goodlatte bill; the liberal Dream Act; a bipartisan proposal, sponsored by Reps. Will HurdWilliam Ballard HurdHillicon Valley: Hacker group targeted electric grid | House Democrats press CBP over facial recognition program | Senators offer bill to protect health data | Groups file FCC complaint over carriers' use of location data Hillicon Valley: Hacker group targeted electric grid | House Democrats press CBP over facial recognition program | Senators offer bill to protect health data | Groups file FCC complaint over carriers' use of location data Lawmakers grapple with deepfake threat at hearing MORE (R-Texas) and Pete AguilarPeter (Pete) Ray AguilarHouse passes bill to protect 'Dreamers' House passes bill to protect 'Dreamers' Pro-business Dem group sees boost in fundraising MORE (D-Calif.), combining DACA protections with new efforts to strengthen border security — but without explicit funding for Trump’s wall; and a yet-unknown bill of Ryan’s choosing. The proposal that wins the most votes, beyond 218, would go to the Senate.

The agreement GOP leaders are seeking instead would feature votes on only two immigration proposals: Goodlatte’s legislation, perhaps with amendments, and a bill providing permanent legal status — and an eventual path to citizenship — for the so-called Dreamers. Such a deal would preclude an embarrassing “Queen of the Hill” scenario, which Republican leaders in Congress and the White House contend lends too much power to the minority Democrats.

“That would be like turning over the House to Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiPelosi hits Trump on health care: His 'cruel hypocrisy knows no bounds' Pelosi hits Trump on health care: His 'cruel hypocrisy knows no bounds' On The Money: DOJ offers legal opinion backing refusal to release Trump tax returns | Centrist Democrats raise concerns over minimum wage | Trump bashes Powell ahead of crucial Fed meeting | Design leaks for Harriet Tubman bill MORE,” Marc Short, Trump’s legislative director, said Friday, referring to the Democratic leader.

Leadership allies say they’re confident Ryan can bridge the divide and keep the more liberal bills off the floor.

“They want to continue having Republicans lead on that issue [and] the president wants to lead on that issue,” said GOP Rep. Tim WalbergTimothy (Tim) Lee WalbergPro-trade group targets Democratic leadership in push for new NAFTA The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Pass USMCA Coalition - Restrictive state abortion laws ignite fiery 2020 debate On The Money: Mnuchin signals officials won't release Trump tax returns | Trump to hold off on auto tariffs | WH nears deal with Mexico, Canada on metal tariffs | GOP fears trade war fallout for farmers | Warren, regulator spar over Wells Fargo MORE, who has dozens of farms in his southern Michigan district. “So I’m hoping that ultimately our caucus will come together and put an immigration bill across the line.”

Rep. Carlos CurbeloCarlos Luis CurbeloThe Hill's Morning Report - Trump, Biden go toe-to-toe in Iowa The Hill's Morning Report - Trump, Biden go toe-to-toe in Iowa Ex-GOP lawmakers are face of marijuana blitz MORE (R-Fla.), the sponsor of the discharge petition, said “a major discussion area” remains the question of citizenship. The centrist DACA supporters are fighting to ensure those immigrants “have a bridge into the legal immigration system,” he said, while conservatives are adamant that they don’t receive a “special” path, akin to jumping in line. But the nuances surrounding that distinction have yet to be worked out.

“You have to define ‘special,’ ” Curbelo said, declining an attempt to do so.

Another wild card in the debate is the question of how many Democrats will endorse the discharge petition. While 190 Democrats have already signed on, three lawmakers representing districts on the Texas-Mexico border — Reps. Filemon VelaFilemon Bartolome VelaWHIP LIST: Number of Democrats backing Trump impeachment inquiry rises WHIP LIST: Number of Democrats backing Trump impeachment inquiry rises Border Dems introduce bill to process refugee claims in Central America MORE, Henry Cuellar and Vicente González — have refused to do so, citing fears that the process would facilitate new border wall construction at the expense of their communities.

Trump’s veto threat over wall funding will only heighten those concerns, while raising new doubts that there’s an agreement to be had that can win the support of most House Republicans, Senate Democrats and the president.

Indeed, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellOvernight Defense: Trump doubles down on claim Iran attacked tankers | Iran calls accusations 'alarming' | Top nuke official quietly left Pentagon | Pelosi vows Congress will block Saudi arms sale Overnight Defense: Trump doubles down on claim Iran attacked tankers | Iran calls accusations 'alarming' | Top nuke official quietly left Pentagon | Pelosi vows Congress will block Saudi arms sale McConnell defends Trump amid backlash: 'He gets picked at every day' MORE (R-Ky.) has warned that he won’t consider any immigration bills that Trump won’t sign.

“We have to make law,” McConnell told The Wall Street Journal on Thursday, “not just spin our wheels.”

Scott Wong contributed.