GOP Immigration Moderates Seek to Force House Votes on Issue

Could spell fresh headaches for GOP leaders, whose party is divided between backers of Trump's hard-line views and more pragmatic members

By Molly Priddy

WASHINGTON — Republicans with moderate views on immigration defied party leaders and took steps Wednesday toward forcing campaign-season House votes on the issue. One top maverick said they had enough support to succeed.

The effort meant that a congressional drive to help young “Dreamer” immigrants that seemed to have lost steam earlier this year could be resurrected in the run-up to November’s elections for House and Senate control. That could spell fresh headaches for GOP leaders, whose party is divided between backers of President Donald Trump’s hard-line views and more pragmatic members.

The rebellious lawmakers want the House to vote in June on four bills including a bipartisan compromise, a conservative proposal and a liberal plan. Many of the legislators demanding action face potentially competitive re-election races in congressional districts with large numbers of Hispanic, suburban or agriculture-industry voters with pro-immigration views.

“We feel very importantly that this has got to happen now, and we’re willing to drive that vote,” said one leading proponent, Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif.

Denham and another leader of the effort, Rep. Carlos Curbelo, R-Fla., met with House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., who has opposed their effort. Denham said he told Ryan his group has enough backing to prevail.

“The speaker is a very respectful person,” Curbelo said of how Ryan responded. “He does not threaten people, at least not that I’m aware of. He just told us that he didn’t think this was the best way to proceed.”

Earlier this year, competing bills aimed at protecting young immigrants and toughening border security collapsed in the Senate, including one backed by Trump. The measures never received House votes.

Both parties had seemed ready to turn the battle into a campaign issue, with Democrats accusing GOP candidates of being anti-immigrant and Republicans accusing Democrats of being soft on illegal immigration.

But Republican immigration moderates wary of being politically exposed if the House abandons the issue have continued pushing leaders for votes, and they seemed to have momentum in their favor Wednesday.

Curbelo, Denham and others filed a petition Wednesday that would force votes on four immigration bills if they gained the signatures of 218 House members, a majority of the chamber’s full membership.

By late afternoon, 17 Republicans had signed on and virtually all 193 Democrats were expected to add their names. That meant at least 25 Republicans were needed to reach a total of 218.

Under House rules, the earliest the chamber would consider the moderates’ proposal for votes is late June.

Of the four immigration measures, the bipartisan compromise is considered likeliest to prevail. Ryan has tried unsuccessfully to round up enough support for the conservative alternative and has said he doesn’t want votes on immigration legislation that Trump won’t sign.

Asked about the moderates’ effort, Ryan spokeswoman AshLee Strong said, “We continue to work with our members to find a solution that can both pass the House and get the president’s signature.”

It is possible that, rather than facing the embarrassment of a petition successfully forcing votes, Ryan would seek a compromise measure. But he’s failed to find middle ground all year.

Even if the House approves something, its fate would be uncertain in the Senate, where no proposal from either side has garnered enough votes to break opponents’ filibusters.

Denham introduced a legislative version of his proposal in March and had 248 co-sponsors, including virtually all Democrats and more than 50 Republicans.

GOP leaders hope to persuade some of those Republicans to not sign the petition, and some have already said they won’t back it. They say the petition would wrest control over the House agenda away from Ryan. Members of the majority party seldom back such petitions for that very reason, and few succeed.

Democrats have pushed this year to protect from deportation hundreds of thousands of young immigrants who have been shielded by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA. That program lets immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as children stay in the country for renewable two-year periods.

Trump ended DACA, created under President Barack Obama, in March, though federal judges have kept it functioning during legal battles expected to last months.

A conservative House bill would let DACA recipients stay in the U.S. temporarily but would also reduce legal immigration, allow construction of Trump’s proposed border wall with Mexico and crack down on sanctuary cities that don’t cooperate with federal immigration authorities.

The liberal DREAM Act — Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors — would give the young immigrants, commonly known as “Dreamers,” a chance at citizenship.

The bipartisan compromise by Reps. Will Hurd, R-Texas, and Pete Aguilar, D-Calif., would offer a way for “Dreamers”to remain in the U.S. legally but would not offer citizenship. It would take steps toward toughening border security but would not specifically authorize Trump’s wall.

For the fourth bill, Ryan could offer any plan he wants.

Under the procedure the moderates are using, the bill that passes with the most votes would prevail.

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