After nine months of empty promises to help young undocumented immigrants, House Republicans are facing a make-or-break moment on Thursday.
Retiring Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) will pitch a long-awaited compromise immigration plan to rank-and-file Republicans in the Capitol basement. The meeting is one of the biggest of the Congress for House Republicans, and it could get heated.
The immigration discussion represents a last-ditch effort to head off a nasty intraparty, election-year clash that leaders have warned could determine whether the GOP keeps control of the House in November.
But it may be too little, too late.
Even some Ryan allies are pouring cold water on the Speaker’s effort to win 218 GOP votes for the compromise legislation. If he fails, some two-dozen centrist Republicans are threatening to buck leadership and move forward with their discharge petition, a move that would trigger a series of contentious immigration votes on the floor five months before the midterm elections.
“I don’t see how we [get] 218 Republicans. I’d love to see it, but I’m just being realistic,” said Rep. Dennis Ross (R-Fla.), a senior deputy whip who may sign the immigration petition if the issue remains unresolved.
GOP leaders had originally set aside two hours for Thursday’s “family discussion” on immigration. But in order to give all lawmakers a chance to weigh in, leaders are now saying they will not place a time limit on the 9 a.m. meeting in the Capitol.
Rep. Chris Collins (R-N.Y.) said the meeting will last “however long it takes for the family to come together.”
“It’s going to be a wide-open, open-mic, venting, discussing, problem-solving” session, said Collins, one of the 23 Republicans who have signed the immigration petition.
“It’s going to be very divided. Some people are very angry about this issue being forced on them,” another petition backer, Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.), told The Hill. “I think it’s going to be tense.”
Most Republicans who have signed the petition are in competitive races this election year — such as Coffman — or are retiring at the end of this Congress.
Nine months ago, President Trump decided to end the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. Since then, Ryan and his deputies have said they want to get a deal that would address the recipients of that program, often called “Dreamers,” and border security.
On Wednesday, Ryan declined to share any details about his negotiations with conservatives from the House Freedom Caucus and the centrist petition supporters, including Reps. Jeff Denham (R-Calif.) and Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.). But he said he thinks there is a narrow path to a deal.
“I really do believe there’s a sweet spot here,” Ryan told reporters.
As a sign of the urgency surrounding the Republicans’ search for a deal, Stephen Miller, senior adviser to Trump and a well-known immigration hawk, spent parts of Wednesday calling Republican lawmakers to gauge progress and relay the president’s priorities.
Perhaps the most significant disagreement among the clashing Republicans surrounds the question of whether beneficiaries of DACA should be granted a pathway to citizenship under the bill — and how that pathway is defined.
A number of conservatives say they’ll oppose any proposal that offers a “special” pathway, but there remains broad discord about how to define the term. Some argue the process can’t stray from current law, which would require Dreamers to return to their native countries before becoming eligible for citizenship.
“The law is the law,” said Rep. Roger Williams (R-Texas), a member of the conservative Republican Study Committee (RSC) who endorsed that view.
Another RSC member, Rep. Bradley Byrne (R-Ala.), described a pathway to citizenship as “a bridge too far,” while Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) stated: “People violated the law, and I don’t believe they should be rewarded for that.”
Still others contend there’s room to provide eventual citizenship benefits without forcing Dreamers out of the country first.
Rep. Mark Walker (R-N.C.), who heads the 160-member RSC, said many in the group are open to allowing Dreamers citizenship without having to leave the country — as long as they don’t jump ahead of other applicants.
“That is part of the negotiation,” Walker said.
Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), who has participated in the negotiations, is also opposed to a “special” pathway to citizenship, but said he, too, is open to providing the underlying benefit.
“How DACA recipients end up getting citizenship is the most difficult question we face,” Meadows said. But “it’s not a non-starter.”
The moderate Republicans, meanwhile, are making the citizenship pathway — without any “touchback” stipulation — an underlying condition of their support.
“We are insistent that they be given a bridge into the legal immigration system,” Curbelo said. “We’re going to keep insisting on that.”
One potential area of agreement may be the adoption of a system in which any expansion of benefits to Dreamers, beyond the current DACA population, is matched one-to-one by cuts in legal immigration visas — a type of “pay-as-you-go” rule governing U.S. immigration, in Walker’s description.
Looming over the talks to salvage the DACA program is Trump’s demand that the package combines the Dreamer protections with three other provisions: enhanced border security, including Trump’s wall; new limits on family migration; and the elimination of the diversity visa lottery.
GOP leaders have used that “four pillars” approach as the underlying guide for the subsequent negotiations, and even the moderate Republicans now pressing leadership for DACA votes maintain they’re open to the cuts in legal immigration under Trump’s design.
“The four pillars outline has been the basis of the discussion and the negotiation,” said Curbelo.
Although Ryan indicated last month that any immigration deal must be bipartisan — “It’s clear to us that we’re going to have a bill that’s going to be bipartisan, but one that the president can support,” he said — the new strategy appears designed to win the support of 218 Republicans.
Indeed, cuts to legal immigration would erode the support of virtually all the Democrats, who have repeatedly warned that they’ll oppose any effort to scale back family migration and diversity visas, which benefit as many as 50,000 people each year from countries with low immigration rates.
Curbelo put the odds at “50-50” that Ryan’s proposed deal to defuse the discharge petition is successful. If no agreement is reached Thursday, the moderates say they’re confident that at least two more Republicans would sign the document — enough to hit the magic 218 mark if all Democrats sign it.
All but one of the 193 House Democrats have signed the petition. Rep. Henry Cuellar, who represents a border district in Texas, wants a commitment from Democratic leadership officials that they won’t support a border wall in exchange for legalizing Dreamers.
Curbelo, however, stopped short of guaranteeing the petition’s success.
“Until they actually sign, we can’t count them,” said Curbelo, who represents a heavily Hispanic South Florida district. “But we’re obviously very close.”