House GOP avoids debate over immigration in defense bill

House GOP avoids debate over immigration in defense bill
© Greg Nash

House Republicans will be spared another floor fight over illegal immigration in this year’s annual defense policy bill in the middle of an election year.

GOP leaders on Wednesday declined to green-light an amendment submitted by Rep. Paul GosarPaul Anthony GosarRepublicans criticize Pelosi for gifting pens used to sign impeachment articles Overnight Energy: Republicans eye top spot on Natural Resources panel | GOP lawmakers push back on bill to make greener refrigerators, air conditioners | Green groups sue Trump over California fracking plans Republicans eye top spot on Natural Resources panel MORE (R-Ariz.) to strip language in the bill that affirms the Defense secretary's ability to enlist anyone considered "vital to the national interest."

Gosar and other immigration hard-liners sought to eliminate the provision and clarify that the Pentagon can only enlist immigrants who are in the country legally.

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In addition, Rep. Jeff DenhamJeffrey (Jeff) John DenhamBottom line Ex-Rep. Duffy to join lobbying firm BGR Former GOP Rep. Walters joins energy company MORE (R-Calif.) did not try to push for a vote this year on his measure to allow certain illegal immigrants to enlist in the military.

The absence of floor debate on illegal immigration during consideration of the defense bill — in an election year — is a stark contrast to 2015.

Last year, divisions among Republicans over inching toward permitting young illegal immigrants to serve in the military culminated in a floor vote to avoid jeopardizing the entire underlying defense authorization.

The House Armed Services Committee had approved a provision during its markup last year that established a sense of the House that the Pentagon should review allowing qualified young illegal immigrants granted work permits under President Obama's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program to enlist.

But the House ultimately approved an amendment from Rep. Mo BrooksMorris (Mo) Jackson BrooksRepublican group asks 'what is Trump hiding' in Times Square billboard Conservative group hits White House with billboard ads: 'What is Trump hiding?' Trump takes pulse of GOP on Alabama Senate race MORE (R-Ala.), a member of the conservative Freedom Caucus, that eliminated the provision.

This year, Rep. Ruben GallegoRuben GallegoDemocratic lawmaker says Trump 'doesn't have full command' on Iran Democratic Congressman: Why Progressives have been pushing for War Powers resolution for months The Hill's Morning Report - Deescalation: US-Iran conflict eases MORE (D-Ariz.) tried to offer an amendment during this year’s committee markup of the defense bill that would have instructed the Pentagon to establish a process for immigrants given legal status under President Obama’s executive actions to enlist.

The panel ended up adopting the “vital to the national interest” language, offered by House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac ThornberryWilliam (Mac) McClellan ThornberryLawmakers push back at Pentagon's possible Africa drawdown GOP senator on Trump soliciting foreign interference: 'Those are just statements' Republicans eye top spot on Natural Resources panel MORE (R-Texas), as a compromise.

Gosar warned during a statement before the House Rules Committee on Tuesday that the language in this year’s bill could be interpreted as tacitly allowing the Obama administration to continue enlisting DACA recipients in a program that permits highly skilled legal immigrants to serve in the military. The program, called Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest, is intended to recruit people with highly sought language or medical skills. 

“Congress must pass my amendment or else the Obama Administration will continue to operate its backdoor amnesty program,” Gosar said.

Meanwhile, Denham’s signature proposal to allow young illegal immigrants to enlist in the military in exchange for a path to legal status was conspicuously missing from this year’s debate.

Since first arriving to the House in 2013, Denham has sought a vote on his legislation, also known as the ENLIST Act, as an amendment to the defense bill every year until now.

GOP leaders allowed his amendment to get floor time in 2013, but Denham later withdrew it after concerns were raised about whether the defense bill was the appropriate jurisdiction. His measure was denied floor consideration entirely in 2014 and 2015.

As recently as October, Denham had indicated he would keep pressing for debate on his bill.

“I am confident that we have a majority of the majority on the ENLIST Act, and I’m going to push forward,” Denham said, according to the Los Angeles Times. However, he didn’t specify the defense authorization as a legislative vehicle.

Denham’s office did not respond to an inquiry seeking an explanation for why the measure wasn’t submitted as an amendment this year.

Denham is a regular top target of Democrats, given that his central California district has a large Hispanic population. The nonpartisan Cook Political Report currently rates his district as “Lean Republican” in this year’s elections.

Final passage of the defense bill is expected later Wednesday.