U.S. House to vote next week on competing immigration bills

The U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on June 7, 2017.
The U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on June 7, 2017.
Shelby Knowles for The Texas Tribune

The House will vote next week on competing immigration bills that deal with the fate of young undocumented immigrants with no guarantee that either will pass and resolve the divisive issue.

A spokeswoman for House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) made the announcement late Tuesday after a group of renegade Republican moderates failed to gather enough support to force votes on far-reaching protections for “dreamers” — including on bipartisan bills that could easily pass.

“Members across the Republican Conference have negotiated directly and in good faith with each other for several weeks, and as a result, the House will consider two bills next week,” said AshLee Strong, an aide to Ryan.

In a severe blow to the moderates’ hope of forcing action on an issue that has long bedeviled the GOP, the House adjourned Tuesday with the rebels two signatures short of completing a petition that would set up debate on legislation to shield dreamers from deportation.

Instead, the House will consider a conservative bill, tilted toward hard-line positions that offers a limited path to permanent legal status for young undocumented immigrants. Another bill that has not been finalized would offer that status, and an eventual path to citizenship, but it remains unclear whether it could pass the House.

Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), chairman of the House Freedom Caucus, said his conservative bloc would continue to negotiate for legislation that can pass. “We want to solve this problem, too,” he said.

But without the leverage of the discharge petition, there is less reason for the most conservative Republicans to vote for a bill that would effectively offer amnesty to hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants.

The agreement, however, is a victory for Ryan and other GOP leaders who feared that unleashing a wide-ranging immigration debate in the midst of midterm primary season could carry unpredictable consequences for the Republican majority. They spent weeks holding detailed talks between seemingly in­trac­table foes inside the party, hoping to dissuade rank-and-file lawmakers from signing the “discharge” petition by demonstrating a good-faith attempt to bridge the divide.

Still, negotiators left a last-ditch meeting short of an agreement on consensus legislation, as conservatives stopped short of endorsing the latest proposal — which would have funded President Trump’s border wall while also giving dreamers a path to permanent legal residency in the United States.

Freedom Caucus members then retreated to a meeting of their own, where a majority decided they could at least stomach allowing a vote on the compromise legislation, on the basis of a working outline of the bill, while stopping short of endorsing the bill itself.

Most Freedom Caucus members prefer a conservative-backed immigration bill, written by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) and Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Tex.). But that bill, which does not guarantee dreamers a path to permanent legal residency, has no Democratic support and is expected to fall short of a majority.

Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.), a moderate who filed the discharge petition and participated in the negotiations, called Ryan’s commitment to hold a vote on an alternative bill a “major development” but added a note of caution.

“While we believe all parties have negotiated in good faith, until and unless we confirm the proposed legislation fully addresses the interests and concerns that unite us we must and will keep up the pressure,” he said in a statement. “Our goal has always been to force the House to debate and consider meaningful immigration reform, and today we’re one step closer. The time for action is now.”

Speaking on the House floor, Rep. Pete Aguilar (D-Calif.), who led the effort to sign all 193 House Democrats on the petition, couched Tuesday’s developments as a loss for those who favor legal protections for dreamers.

“To those young people who feel that this institution let them down once again, or maybe they feel that I let them down, know that we’re going to continue to work,” he said. “We’re going to continue to offer our ideas and solutions.”

Republicans have struggled for years to arrive at any sort of immigration compromise, with pro-business Republicans who support expanding legal immigration and a possible amnesty for those living in the United States illegally sharply at odds with an ascendant populist wing that is fervently opposed to amnesty and wants to curtail any legal influx to protect American jobs and wages.

Earlier in the day, House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.), the No. 3 Republican in the House, warned that the petition could mean passage of the Dream Act, which would grant permanent legal status to young immigrants who arrived in the United States as minors. The bill, he said, “threatens national security” because it would not include accompanying enforcement measures that Trump and GOP lawmakers are demanding.

“It does not secure the border,” he said at a morning event hosted by Politico. “There seems to be broad agreement we should secure the border. Well, then, why not go and do it and then address these other problems?”

GOP negotiators spent the weekend reviewing an outline of a potential compromise that would offer dreamers a path to permanent legal status and eventually to U.S. citizenship, while also including border security enhancements and cuts to legal immigration programs that are favored by Trump and the Republican hard-liners.

Trump’s decision in August to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that protects hundreds of thousands of dreamers from deportation has added new urgency to the debate — and prompted the moderates to file the discharge petition in May after internal talks went nowhere.

The outline of a compromise, according to members and aides who have reviewed it, includes $25 billion for a border wall and cutbacks to some legal immigration pathways. Under one proposal, they said, dreamers would be eligible for visas reclaimed from the cancellation of the Diversity Visa Program, which distributed 50,000 visas a year through a lottery, and by scaling back opportunities for family-based migration.

Scalise said Tuesday morning that he was “very hopeful” the discharge petition would not be completed Tuesday evening.

He pointed to the decision by one lawmaker, Rep. Dennis A. Ross (R-Fla.), to step back from his threats to sign the petition. Scalise said he and other members of the Republican leadership had urged Ross not to join the effort.

In a statement, a Ross spokesman cited “productive conversations with House leadership about the need for immigration reform that includes: a strong guest worker program that supports the Florida and national economy; robust increases in border security and enforcement; and a solution for DACA recipients, among other items.”

The spokesman, Kyle Glenn, said Ross has gotten “commitments that leadership intends to move legislation to achieve these reforms.”

The discharge backers, however, targeted several other Republicans. One was Rep. Dan Newhouse (R-Wash.), who represents a rural district home to thousands of DACA recipients. But signing the discharge petition could mean risking his seat on the powerful House Rules Committee, whose members are expected to act in line with the party leadership.

Newhouse said in a statement late Tuesday that his concerns had been met by Ryan’s commitment to bring a bill to the floor next week, as well as a later bill addressing immigrant labor for the agriculture industry.

“The discharge petition has succeeded in pushing this vital matter for so many young people to the forefront,” he said, noting that the petition could come up again next month. “I will continue to keep my options open on what is the best course of action.”



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