It’s difficult to overstate how badly this week has gone for Republicans in Congress.
As they head into an already difficult midterm election cycle, GOP lawmakers have found themselves playing defense on an issue that bitterly divides the party, following the lead of a president who dominated the news cycle with harsh attacks and sudden reversals.
Things are only expected to get worse as the House of Representatives votes on two comprehensive immigration bills Thursday afternoon. Neither piece of legislation — a hardline bill that would curtail legal immigration, sponsored by Rep. Bob Goodlatte of Virginia and known as the “Goodlatte bill” and a more moderate proposal cobbled together by House leadership — is expected to pass.
In a sense, though, the vote was never anything more than an academic exercise, a testament to the cynicism that pervades Congress at this moment. “We’re living in the twilight zone,” one House Republican said late Wednesday.
For weeks, a group of moderate Republicans in the House, led by Reps. Carlos Curbelo of Florida, Will Hurd of Texas and Jeff Denham of California, frustrated by the stasis of the immigration debate months after President Donald Trump announced the end to protections for young immigrants known as Dreamers, began to foment a legislative coup that would force a vote on this issue. They spent weeks gathering signatures on an arcane document known as a discharge petition that would bypass Speaker of the House Paul Ryan’s authority and bring four bills — among them a bipartisan proposal that had Democratic support — to the floor.
This week’s vote was Ryan’s means of assuaging them and a fringe coalition of House conservatives that has been clamoring for the legislation of Trump’s hardline immigration wishes. This latter group is helmed by Rep. Mark Meadows of North Carolina, who chairs the conservative House Freedom Caucus, whose long-simmering tensions with Ryan have been well-documented.
On Wednesday afternoon, these tensions came to a head in a very public way, on the floor of the House chamber. In front of their colleagues and the C-SPAN cameras, Meadows accused Ryan of putting forward the original version of the Goodlatte bill, rather than a modified version more likely to pass. “It doesn’t matter anymore,” Meadows snapped at Ryan on the floor.
“We’ve been led to believe there was a miscommunication,” Rep. Mark Walker of North Carolina, a conservative Republican, told reporters on Wednesday evening. “I don’t see how we can vote on the second Goodlatte bill tomorrow. I’m going to be asking leadership to move that to next week.”
Ultimately, though, more attention is on the compromise bill, which Trump endorsed in a Tuesday night meeting with House Republicans in the basement of the Capitol. (The meeting, according to individuals in the room, was a doozy: Trump vacillated between topics ranging from North Korea to Hillary Clinton, and at one point jabbed at Rep. Mark Sanford, the South Carolina Republican who lost his primary election last week.)
The compromise bill will offer legal protections for Dreamers and a narrow path to citizenship for some of them while also pumping billions towards a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. It would also prevent the Department of Homeland Security from separating families caught crossing the border, a provision added following a very public outcry over the detention of immigrant children. (Trump signed an executive order on Wednesday afternoon reversing the administration policy that allowed this to take place.)
“It’s a very difficult situation,” Rep. Tom Cole, an Oklahoma Republican, said. “At the end of the day you can’t just allow anybody who shows up with a kid automatically allowed into the country. Each one of these people could have gone to the appropriate authorities and pled their case for asylum there.”
By Thursday morning, even Trump himself was dismissing the utility of the coming vote, saying that even if the bills passed, they would almost certainly fail in the Senate. (This is correct.)
Meanwhile, across the Capitol, members of the Senate looked to their colleagues in the lower chamber with a certain weary bemusement. “We still need comprehensive immigration reform,” Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Minnesota Democrat, said.