Paul Ryan Is Cornered in the House Immigration Fight

He can’t stop the moderates, but conservatives will blame him if he doesn’t.

Kevin McCarthy stands beside Paul Ryan.
House Speaker Paul Ryan (right) and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy speak to the media at the Capitol Hill Club on Dec. 6, 2016. Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Moderate members in the House of Representatives are trying to circumvent Republican leadership to force a series of immigration votes. A bipartisan group has nearly assembled the signatures necessary for a discharge petition, which would override the will of House Speaker Paul Ryan and Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who have tried to push for a more conservative alternative.

But if you think conservative members would have a hard time blaming Ryan and McCarthy for whatever moderate immigration bill results from the discharge effort—after all, they didn’t bring that moderate immigration bill to the floor, the treacherous moderates just went around them—you would be mistaken.

Some restive conservatives within the Freedom Caucus made clear on Monday they would view the discharge petition’s success as a choice from leadership, who didn’t use every tool in their power to stop it.

“If you don’t want the tyranny of the minority to take over, and you’re in leadership, there are methods to make sure that policy that the American people didn’t ask for doesn’t come to the floor,” Pennsylvania Rep. Scott Perry told reporters Monday. “If they’re not willing to do that, that’s going to be very telling.”

When asked whether Ryan should step down early if moderates get their way, Perry didn’t rule it out. “If we run an amnesty bill out of a Republican House, I think all options are on the table,” he said. And there would be plenty of blame to spread around for McCarthy, Ryan’s supposed heir apparent, in that situation too.

“The speaker told us that he would never [let] an immigration bill come to the floor that didn’t have the support of over half the conference,” Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, a former chairman of the Freedom Caucus, said. “He said that. The speaker said that.” That, he explained, is why they need to bring up the Goodlatte bill—hard-liners’ preferred measure for addressing Dreamers, border security, interior enforcement, and legal immigration levels—to the floor for a vote immediately.

“Leadership cannot be forced into allowing the discharge to happen,” Virginia Rep. Dave Brat said. “All leadership has to do is put Goodlatte on the floor, and the discharge goes bye-bye.

“If leadership doesn’t stop it when they have the power to stop it,” he said, “it would be violating their own word.”

The Goodlatte bill is one of four immigration bills that the discharge petition would allow for consideration. But it’s also the base text of the measure. So if leaders were to call a vote on the Goodlatte bill, on its own, it would nullify the discharge petition.  That’s why the Freedom Caucus wants it, and Republican Majority Whip Steve Scalise said on Monday that they were eyeing a vote on the Goodlatte bill for the third week of June—before the earliest date that the discharge petition could be considered, June 25.

But setting up a stand-alone vote on the Goodlatte bill wouldn’t totally eliminate moderates’ leverage. The House would have to first vote on a rule for the Goodlatte bill. If enough moderates joined with Democrats to vote down the rule, according to a Democratic leadership aide, “that keeps the discharge alive.”

This is the roadblock.

Conservatives want a vote on the Goodlatte bill alone, to kill the discharge petition. But moderates wouldn’t go along with the vaporizing of their own discharge petition if they’re not getting anything out of it. They would want the rule allowing for a vote on Goodlatte to also allow for a vote on at least one other, moderate bill. North Carolina Rep. Mark Meadows, chairman of the Freedom Caucus, said on both Monday and Tuesday that such a combined rule, allowing for votes on multiple bills, would be unacceptable to his members.

The bigger picture here is still the inability of Republicans to come up with a bill that gets the support of a majority of Republicans, and enough Democrats, to reach 218 votes. That’s the endpoint that leadership is trying to reach. If they could devise such a bill, they could set up a rule that allowed for votes on Goodlatte and, when that failed, the mythical “sweet spot” bill, which would pass. But if they could devise such a bill, they also would have done so months ago. That’s the problem.

Moderates are in control here, for a change. If leadership can’t bring them something, they can continue their push for a discharge petition. But it’s hard to see what olive branch leadership can offer moderates that wouldn’t righteously piss off conservatives, throw Ryan’s leadership into further question, and hurt McCarthy’s standing ahead of his long-sought succession.