These House Republicans Are Trying to Force the DACA Issue

Immigration advocates try an end run around Paul Ryan.

Florida Rep. Carlos Curbelo holds a news conference on immigration reform at the Capitol on Wednesday.
Florida Rep. Carlos Curbelo holds a news conference on immigration reform at the Capitol on Wednesday. Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call

When I asked Florida Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart last year if he would sign a discharge petition to force a vote on a bill to investigate Russian meddling in the election, he didn’t hesitate for a second. “I don’t sign discharge petitions,” he said. “I didn’t even sign an immigration discharge petition.”

On Wednesday, though, Diaz-Balart, an immigration moderate and an advocate for Dreamers, did sign a discharge petition, the first time he’s done so in Congress. He joined several other Republicans, many of them representing districts with significant Hispanic populations, in introducing a petition that would force a vote on a series of immigration bills.

Discharge petitions are a last resort. The process allows House members to force a vote on any bill, if a majority signs on. Members of the majority are typically careful not to participate in such a direct rebuke to House leadership by circumventing their control over what comes to the floor. And it almost never works: Only twice in the past 17 years has a discharge petition actually succeeded.

But immigration advocates are getting desperate. House Speaker Paul Ryan and Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, hostage to hard-liner elements within their conference, haven’t called up any bills to address the crisis for Dreamers that President Trump sparked when he announced the end of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals last year. The moderate Republicans behind the discharge petition are tired of waiting when it’s not clear anything will happen, and they’re forcing a rare confrontation with leaders over the thing leaders value most: control of the floor. The petition currently has 18 Republican signatures, and would need about a half-dozen more to get a majority if nearly all Democrats signed on.

“It’s not something you take lightly,” Diaz-Balart told me Thursday. The reason he broke his long-standing rule to sign this one, he said, is in part because of its “respectful” structure.

In this case, the discharge petition would force an immigration debate, rather than require a vote on one particular bill. The process would be governed by a “queen of the hill” rule, which would allow for votes on four different immigration measures. The one earning the most votes would be declared the winner.

“It’s not your traditional thing, where ‘it’s got to be this bill,’ and, you know, ‘we’re pissed,’ ” Diaz-Balart said, explaining why he’s willing to consider this more “respectful” petition. “It’s a rule, with the flexibility of allowing four different [amendments] to come up.”

“The reality,” he said, “is that we have to bring things to the floor.”

Both Diaz-Balart and Pennsylvania Rep. Ryan Costello, a Republican moderate who is not seeking re-election and has also signed the petition, used the same term when describing the strategy to me: that it’s “not anti-leadership,” and that they have the utmost respect for Ryan and McCarthy and their leadership abilities.

“I don’t view it as anti-leadership, the way that some [other members] think that it is,” Costello said. “If you want to get something to the floor, and it’s not getting to the floor, that’s a way to do it.” He compared what moderates are doing as a “less draconian” method for forcing an issue with leadership than, say, far-right Freedom Caucus members threatening to overthrow the speaker.

But doesn’t leadership view it as anti-leadership?

“You’d have to ask them,” Costello said, and thought for another second. “I think part of being leadership is setting the floor calendar. This is disruptive to that.”

Leadership does seem to think that this is anti-leadership, and would rather it not be happening.

“We never want to turn the floor over to the minority,” Ryan said at his weekly press conference on Thursday. “And what I don’t want to do is have a process that just ends up with a veto.” Ryan said the goal is still to come up with one immigration bill that would be able to get Democratic votes and earn the president’s signature, though progress toward that goal appears to be nonexistent. “Going down a path and having some kind of spectacle on the floor that just results in a veto doesn’t solve a problem,” he said.

The “spectacle” that Ryan dismisses would be allowing the House to work its will on a given issue—a process that, in the distant past, was considered a healthy legislative process. The four bills that the “queen” rule would allow for—which are subject to change—are the DREAM Act; the Goodlatte bill, which is preferred by the far right and offers temporary status for DACA beneficiaries in exchange for border security (including physical barriers), enhanced interior immigration enforcement, and cuts to legal immigration; the Hurd–Aguilar bill, a bipartisan proposal that offers Dreamers conditional permanent status and a path to citizenship in exchange for nonwall border-security measures; and a proposal of leaders’ choice.

That’s a wide gamut. But, as Ryan implied in his own comment, it’s obvious enough which would be crowned as “queen”: the Hurd–Aguilar bill, which currently has 29 Republican and 30 Democratic co-sponsors. Though it would get a lot of Republican votes, it likely wouldn’t get a majority of them. When Ryan became speaker in 2015, he promised the Freedom Caucus that he wouldn’t bring to the floor any immigration bills that didn’t have the support of a majority of the majority.

It’s hard to know what kind of persuasion techniques leadership is employing to whip its members against signing the petition. But the effort seemed to lose some steam on its second day. Though 17 Republicans signed on Wednesday, only one new Republican signed on after the House held a series of votes on Thursday morning. Each additional pickup will be harder than the previous one, and the disapproval of leadership may have reached some potentially swayable members.

“I believe in our process,” New York Rep. Dan Donovan told me. Donovan is currently in a heated primary with ex-con former Rep. Michael Grimm for his Staten Island seat, and he’s not signing the petition. “I signed the letter asking for the bills to be brought to the floor, but I believe in our process,” he said. Donovan and other members who said they were “trusting the process” sounded almost like athletes recovering from stubborn injuries.

To those like Diaz-Balart, though, there hasn’t been any process to trust since a court ruling earlier this year required the administration to continue renewing permits for existing DACA beneficiaries, an injunction the Supreme Court didn’t immediately take up.

“If nothing else,” he said, this discharge petition is “the pressure point that kind of went away after the Supreme Court didn’t act.”

“And I was happy that it gave some more time to the DACA recipients,” he continued. “On the other hand, it took away all pressure here. Remember, after that, it just disappeared, off the radar. This is a way to bring it back, and that’s why this is a very unique opportunity. A historic opportunity.”