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 GosarOvernight Energy: House moves to block Trump drilling | House GOP rolls out proposal to counter offshore drilling ban | calls mount for NOAA probe House approves two bills to block Trump drilling House GOP rolls out energy proposal to counter Democrats offshore drilling ban 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 DenhamChina's TikTok turns to former lawmakers to help with content moderation policies Hillicon Valley: Warren turns up heat in battle with Facebook | Instagram unveils new data privacy feature | Advocacy group seeks funding to write about Big Tech TikTok adds former lawmakers to help develop content moderation policies 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 BrooksGOP lawmaker blasts Omar and Tlaib: Netanyahu right to block 'enemies' of Israel Conservatives call on Pelosi to cancel August recess Overnight Defense: Woman accusing general of sexual assault willing to testify | Joint Chiefs pick warns against early Afghan withdrawal | Tensions rise after Iran tries to block British tanker MORE (R-Ala.), a member of the conservative Freedom Caucus, that eliminated the provision.

This year, Rep. Ruben GallegoRuben GallegoOvernight Energy: Trump administration issues plan to reverse limits on logging in Tongass National Forest| Democrats inch closer to issuing subpoenas for Interior, EPA records| Trump's plan to boost ethanol miffs corn groups and the fossil fuel industry Trump administration issues plan to reverse limits on logging in Tongass National Forest 2020 Democrats raise alarm about China's intellectual property theft 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 ThornberryPelosi arrives in Jordan with bipartisan congressional delegation Furious Republicans prepare to rebuke Trump on Syria Five ways Trump's Syria decision spells trouble 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.