How a Divisive Immigration Fight Took Down Republicans’ Farm Bill

This is not how Paul Ryan wanted to spend his May.

Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy talk during the House GOP press conference in the Capitol following the House Republican Conference meeting on Wednesday.
Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy talk during the House GOP press conference in the Capitol following the House Republican Conference meeting on Wednesday. Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call

When House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy left Speaker Paul Ryan’s office at about 10 a.m. on Friday morning, reporters asked him whether he would pull the sprawling farm bill before a planned vote later that morning. Leaders had been fending off revolts from both moderates and conservatives all week.

“No,” he said.

And would it pass?

“Yes,” he said.

A couple of hours later, after a frenzied whipping operation from the entire leadership team on the House floor, the farm bill failed, 198–213. Thirty Republicans joined 183 Democrats to tank the bill, which authorizes agricultural policy and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps) for five years.

Like all things in the current Congress, this was somehow about immigration.

The issue, seemingly dead when the Senate failed to pass any immigration measures in February, has reasserted itself in the House over the past few weeks and is doing its usual damage to Republican unity. GOP moderates have threatened to circumvent leadership’s control of the floor by signing a “discharge petition” that would force votes on a series of immigration bills. Conservatives, recognizing that such a process would produce a bill that’s too moderate for their liking, have pressed leaders to bring up the most conservative of the available immigration bills—one authored by Rep. Bob Goodlatte, the Judiciary Committee chairman, and supported by Trump—for a vote by itself and a sustained whipping effort to pass it.

The House Freedom Caucus, knowing that Republican leaders needed their support to pass the farm bill, wielded today’s vote as leverage. In recent days, leaders had been holding meetings with both the Freedom Caucus and the immigration moderates to come up with a plan that could work for all, like a vote on the Goodlatte bill and then a vote on a second, to-be-determined immigration bill that could get 218 votes, support from a majority of House Republicans, and the president’s signature. (Crafting such a bill is no easy task, which is why it hasn’t appeared yet.)

Leaders offered Freedom Caucus members a specific date in June for a vote on the Goodlatte bill. That wasn’t enough. North Carolina Rep. Mark Meadows, chairman of the Freedom Caucus, has secured promises on the Goodlatte bill before, only to see leaders slow-walk any action on it. Instead, Meadows insisted that leadership hold a vote on the Goodlatte bill concurrently with the farm bill, which leaders refused to do.

Leadership chose to gamble by putting the bill on the floor and calling conservatives’ bluff that they would truly kill the Trump-backed farm bill if they didn’t get their way. The Freedom Caucus wasn’t bluffing, though, and it led to one of the most dramatic floor scenes of this Congress.

During the last series of amendment votes, Republican leaders were all-hands-on-deck trying to secure the support they needed. At one point, Ryan, McCarthy, Majority Whip Steve Scalise, and Chief Deputy Whip Patrick McHenry all surrounded Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, another Freedom Caucus leader, in the well of the chamber. Once it was clear they weren’t going anywhere, Jordan walked back to the center of the chamber, where Freedom Caucus members congregate, while Ryan and McCarthy went to speak to Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Conaway, the farm-bill manager. McHenry and Scalise shared notes, then went back to buttonholing individual members. Meadows and Ryan retreated to the cloakroom, just off the House floor, where they could speak in private without pesky reporters trying to read their lips. Neither came out looking very pleased.

As time went on, leaders kept returning to the Freedom Caucus, trying to sway members one by one. They could be seen having animated conversations with, say, Virginia Reps. Tom Garrett and Dave Brat, the two most endangered Freedom Caucus members this cycle. Garrett, a freshman, voted for the bill; Brat did not.

By the time amendments were finished and the chair called for order, all four leaders moved to the back to discuss the plan. Eventually, McCarthy, Scalise, and McHenry meandered off. Ryan watched from the back as the bill failed. Though the focus on individual members near the end of the whipping process suggested the bill was within one or two votes of passage, it wasn’t that close.

Ryan will bring the farm bill up again, date to be determined. (Asked what happens next, Conaway told reporters that he would be going to see his grandson’s graduation this weekend.) The power move by the Freedom Caucus has only resurrected the rest of the conference’s ill will toward the far-right bloc—if it ever really went away.

“At some point, you either trust your leaders or you don’t,” Oklahoma Rep. Tom Cole, a senior appropriator and deputy whip, told reporters. “I mean, that’s ridiculous.

“If you wanted a vote on a particular piece of legislation, and they told you, ‘You’ve got it, and it’s going to happen on this date,’ then why in the world would you vote against the farm bill unless you had some problem with the farm bill?” Cole wondered.

But, more than anything, the farm bill’s failure showed that—as much as leaders dread it—they won’t be able to move on until they unwind this immigration knot. Until they do that, the issue will keep dividing their caucus and crimping their ability to stay focused on midterm messaging.

“We’ve got to get a resolution to immigration that’s consistent with the mandate of the election,” Jordan, who had no serious problem with the farm bill, told reporters afterward. “That’s all this was about.”