U.S. Speaker of the House Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) speaks during a news briefing after a House Republican Conference meeting May 22, 2018 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.
Alex Wong—Getty Images
By Nash Jenkins
May 23, 2018

A dramatic fight over immigration has underlined the divisions among House Republicans as they approach the midterm elections under a lame-duck Speaker.

For the last two weeks, a bloc of moderate Republicans have joined with Democrats to try to force a vote to force a series of votes on immigration policy, defying their own congressional leadership and infuriating other members of their party. The group is trying to sidestep GOP colleagues by using an arcane procedural measure, known as a “discharge petition,” which can push a bill to the floor with the backing of a majority of House members’ signatures.

As of Wednesday afternoon, the petition needed just four more Republican signatures, assuming it has the unanimous consent of Democrats, who have long pushed for a vote on a proposal to preserve the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which protects from deportation some immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as children.

Forcing the vote would be a remarkable rebuke to House Speaker Paul Ryan, who has urged Republicans not to sign the petition. “It’s futile,” Ryan argued. The rank-and-file’s willingness to go against Ryan speaks to the growing frustration among G.O.P. moderates with House leadership as well as with their right-wing colleagues in the House Freedom Caucus.

It’s been nearly nine months since President Donald Trump announced that he would rescind DACA and asked Congress to fix the Obama-era executive action. In that time, neither chamber of Congress has found a legislative solution. “It’s time for Congress to do its job and have the debate that it has avoided for years,” Rep. Jeff Denham, a California Republican helping to lead the push, wrote in an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times.

Conservative Republicans are clamoring for a vote of their own: on a hardline bill sponsored by retiring Rep. Bob Goodlatte of Virginia that would cut legal immigration to the U.S. by nearly half. Last week, a faction of these conservatives, led by Rep. Mark Meadows of North Carolina, who chairs the Freedom Caucus, sunk an $867 farm bill as an act of protest in the face of inaction.

It was an embarrassment for Ryan, and the success of the discharge petition would only compound it. In the wake of his retirement announcement last month, rumors of an imminent coup against him have swirled on Capitol Hill, despite his insistence that he would hold onto the speakership until the end of his term in January.

Hanging over all this is the prospect of steep losses in this November’s midterm elections, with party elders steeling for a potential Democratic wave. But the schism on immigration is spreading to the donor community, threatening some rank-and-file members clinging to their seats. Politico reported on Wednesday morning that John Rowe, a prominent Republican donor, would cut funding to Republican lawmakers who declined to support the moderates’ discharge petition.

House conservatives are still hoping the petitioners won’t have the numbers. “Do they even have the votes? [It’s a] non-issue if they can’t find four,” says GOP Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida. Others say that while they understand some Republicans in districts with sizable Hispanic populations might need to adopt a moderate stance on immigration, the majority of the party answers to a more conservative electorate.

“To pass with predominately Democratic voters would be a violation of the Speaker’s promise,” Meadows said Wednesday, “and certainly wouldn’t be in keeping with what the overall conference wants.”

But Meadows told reporters that this was not a veiled threat to Ryan’s speakership. “The whole narrative that his job is at risk just is not accurate,” he said. “I can tell you at this point that the speaker will be the speaker until he decides to leave, which I fully expect will be after the November elections.”

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