The House Is on the Brink of Forcing Votes on Immigration

The bid by a group of GOP moderates to bypass Speaker Paul Ryan on DACA is just five signatures away from success.

The Capitol dome, seen at night
J. Scott Applewhite / AP

A group of renegade House Republicans is just five signatures away from forcing votes on legislation that would grant permanent legal status to undocumented immigrants brought illegally to the United States as children.

The effort gained steam on Thursday even as Speaker Paul Ryan, President Trump, and House conservatives intensified their attempt to quell the moderate rebellion and set up immigration votes on their terms. By Thursday afternoon, the discharge petition that rank-and-file Republicans have been circulating to bypass the party leadership had secured 213 signatures of the 218 needed to achieve a majority. Two more moderate Republicans, Representatives Tom Reed of New York and Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania, signed the document on Thursday, as did the top two House Democrats: Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Whip Steny Hoyer.

If successful, the discharge petition would set up a floor debate and votes on four competing bills to address the future of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, the Obama-era initiative that Trump has sought to end. Congress missed a Trump-imposed March deadline to codify the program after the Senate failed to pass any of the related bills it considered earlier this year. The immediate fate of DACA now rests on a final ruling by the federal courts, while the House has taken no action on the program at all.

Ryan has fought the discharge petition by arguing that it would be a waste of time to hold votes on legislation that Trump would veto. The president backed up the speaker’s position on Thursday by telling Fox News that any DACA bill must include the “whole package” he’s demanded—a “real” border wall, plus changes that restrict the flow of legal immigration. Ryan is facing a related uprising from House conservatives who want a vote only on a far more restrictive immigration bill, not proposals that provide a path to citizenship for the so-called Dreamers as the moderate-backed bills do. He told reporters on Thursday that the leadership was still looking for “the sweet spot” on the contentious issue, and another round of meetings between the leadership, conservatives, and moderates had yet to yield an agreement that would head off the petition.

“As of right now, there’s no deal,” a senior Republican aide familiar with the talks, who was not authorized to speak publicly and spoke on the condition of anonymity, told me late Thursday afternoon.

Two of the GOP leaders of the petition effort, Representatives Jeff Denham of California and Carlos Curbelo of Florida, have told reporters they have the necessary support. But with negotiations ongoing, they still remain a few signatures short of the 218 threshold.

If every House Democrat signed the petition, Denham and Curbelo would need just two more Republicans to join. But a trio of Texas Democrats—Representatives Henry Cuellar, Vicente Gonzalez, and Filemon Vela—have balked at signing due to their staunch opposition to voting on any legislation that would endorse Trump’s border wall, as all of the bills are expected to do. “Representatives Vela, Gonzalez, and I are saying ‘no’ to signing the petition,” Cuellar told me in a statement sent by his spokeswoman. “As I’ve said in the past, I cannot support a border wall which is a 14th-century solution to a 21st-century problem. There are better ways at finding solutions to DACA, and I will continue to work in a bipartisan way in Congress to properly address these issues.”

Top Democrats including Pelosi, Hoyer, and members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus have tried to persuade the three holdouts to sign on, but so far they haven’t budged, according to a leadership aide who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Some Democrats believe, however, that if two more Republicans endorse the petition, the pressure on Cuellar, Gonzalez, and Vela will be too intense for them to ignore.

For his part, Ryan might not have succeeded in quashing the discharge petition altogether this week, but he has bought some more time for negotiations. Congress left on Thursday for a 10-day recess timed to Memorial Day, and because lawmakers must physically sign the discharge petition in the House chamber, it’s unlikely the GOP group will secure the five remaining signatures until after the recess. Under the rules, the Republicans have until June 11 before their window for reaching the threshold expires.