A deepening rupture within the House Republican ranks over immigration policy has claimed another casualty: the farm bill, a far-reaching priority of Speaker Paul Ryan that would impose work requirements on recipients of food stamps.
Conservatives in the House Freedom Caucus joined in an unlikely alliance with Republican moderates and the entire Democratic caucus on Friday to sink the legislation, which covers everything from agricultural subsidies to school lunches to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps. Despite a flurry of last-minute negotiations with GOP leaders, members of the Freedom Caucus made good on their threat to block a bill they supported on the merits as part of an unrelated fight over immigration.
To head off an attempt by Republican moderates to force votes on bipartisan immigration bills—a formal petition drive that’s only a handful of GOP signatures away from succeeding—the conservatives had demanded a firm commitment from the leadership for a vote on their preferred immigration proposal. But when a deal didn’t materialize on Thursday night, they voted down the farm bill.
“This is all the more disappointing because we offered the vote these members were looking for, but they still chose to take the bill down,” said Doug Andres, a spokesman for the speaker.
The impact of the conservative revolt on farm policy is likely to be limited; the bill that failed on a 198-213 vote Friday was already too conservative for the closely divided Senate and unlikely to become law. Yet it was a priority for Ryan, the retiring House speaker who has described its changes to food stamps and other anti-poverty programs as one of the last remaining unfulfilled pieces of his legislative legacy following last year’s passage of a $1.5 trillion tax cut. “This is a critical pillar of our Better Way agenda that we talked about, that we campaigned on, that we believe in,” Ryan told reporters this week. “It’s a priority for this unified government.”
The bill’s failure, however, could have immediate implications for House action on immigration. A senior House Republican, Representative Patrick McHenry of North Carolina, predicted to reporters on Friday that additional rank-and-file GOP lawmakers would soon sign on to a discharge petition to force votes on a series of competing immigration bills. The proposals would address the so-called Dreamers who are now in legal limbo after President Trump moved to end Obama-era protections shielding them from deportation.
Twenty House Republicans have already endorsed the unusually aggressive parliamentary maneuver, and as few as five more could achieve the 218-vote threshold—a majority of the House—needed to trigger a full floor debate if all Democrats sign on. Another rush of moderates onto the discharge petition “is exactly what I feared if the farm bill went down,” McHenry told NBC News. (While most Democrats have signed the petition, it’s possible that a few might not, meaning more Republicans would be needed.)
Both the Freedom Caucus and the House GOP leadership have been trying to defeat the discharge petition in recent days. Ryan pleaded with Republican lawmakers for more time to develop a consensus immigration bill that Trump might sign. The man who hopes to succeed the retiring speaker, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, warned the party that an election-year debate on proposals that offer a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants would depress the conservative base in November.
Yet the Freedom Caucus opposed the measure for a different reason: For months, its members have been pushing for a vote on conservative legislation drafted by Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte of Virginia and endorsed by Trump that would grant only limited and temporary legal status to Dreamers while funding the president’s Southern border wall and reducing the future flow of legal immigrants. That bill currently doesn’t have the votes to pass the House, and Ryan tried to assure conservatives that he would work to bring up a revised version in June after passage of the farm bill.
Assurances from a lame-duck speaker for future action on immigration went over no better with conservatives than they did with the moderates demanding an open debate on DACA. On Friday morning, 30 Republicans took out their frustration by tanking the farm bill, embarrassing a party leadership team that suddenly faces a rebellion on two fronts.