At the start of the House’s long-delayed vote on its immigration bill on Wednesday, I began to jot down notable Republican “no” votes, but recognized within about 15 seconds that would be a useless effort. By the time random members of the Texas delegation, unaffiliated with any particular caucus, immediately registered their “no” votes, it was clear that the bill was going down in an unusually bad vote. This wasn’t just the conservative Freedom Caucus withholding 30 or so votes. A healthy chunk of the rank-and-file wouldn’t go along, if they knew it had no chance, and that fact was already clear before the vote had started.
The Border Security and Immigration Reform Act, a “compromise” bill negotiated between moderate and conservative Republicans—who later bailed on it—failed 121–301 on Wednesday afternoon in a quick five-minute bloodbath. No Democrats supported it. A majority of Republicans did support it, but it was close, 121 to 112. President Trump, after weeks of dithering on whether he supported the measure or not, finally delivered the endorsement tweet that leaders had wanted on Wednesday morning. It was too late.
The moderates, who had launched the immigration debate in the House with a discharge petition in May that would have forced a series of immigration votes, looked devastated. But they made their best effort to spin it in a press conference with reporters after the vote.
“What we witnessed today,” Florida Rep. Carlos Curbelo, one of the leaders of the discharge petition effort, “was a minority of Republicans joining every Democrat in the House to double down on a failed, broken, inefficient, unfair and at times cruel immigration system.” He didn’t have great words for Democrats, either, saying that they “decided today that they prefer the politics, the petty politics, of immigration instead of the solutions for immigration.”
California Rep. Jeff Denham, Curbelo’s lead partner in the discharge effort, said that “what was obvious today was that Republicans cannot pass a 218-Republican-vote bill” on immigration, and that the only way forward on immigration was on a bipartisan bill.
A bipartisan bill was their original goal in launching the discharge petition—before they got outplayed by leadership and conservatives, two groups more skilled and experienced in legislative brinksmanship.
Republicans were able to steer the final members away from signing the discharge petition earlier this month when it sat at 216 signatures—two shy of triggering a series of immigration votes that most likely would have produced a narrow bipartisan bill addressing Dreamers and border security.
Curbelo and Denham, during the press conference, got irritated when a reporter asked whether they regretted “not going through with” the petition. It wasn’t their choice, they argued. They just couldn’t get the signatures.
“By forcing members to sign a petition?” Curbelo said. “What did you expect us to do, take their hand and make them sign?” Denham, we should note, had been proudly telling reporters weeks ago that they had more than enough signatures in their pocket, and that some members were just waiting for the signal to sign. That was either a bluff, or Denham was naïve about leadership’s ability to persuade those members away.
The process moderates settled for was a two-parter: Conservatives would get a vote on their preferred immigration bill, authored earlier this year by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, and then conservative and moderates would negotiate a compromise bill that could pass the House.
This was a trap for moderates. As soon as conservatives got their vote on the first Goodlatte bill, the discharge petition was rendered invalid, leaving moderates without any leverage. When the Goodlatte bill got a surprisingly high 193 votes last week, conservatives, who had been irritated for months with leadership’s foot-dragging in bringing it to the floor, had another incentive to stay away from the compromise: They wanted to show that the more conservative bill could do better than the compromise bill, and could’ve gotten over the top if leadership had bothered to whip it.
In other words, conservatives had little reason—beyond maintaining trust with their moderate colleagues—not to abandon them on the compromise bill that the two groups had negotiated together. But they kept pushing it further right to see how much they could get away with.
“We negotiated in good faith with many members who continually added measures that they couldn’t support on the floor today,” Denham said.
“We expected that, after heavily influencing the process and the drafting of the legislation, that [the Freedom Caucus] would support it,” Curbelo said. “That’s natural any time people negotiate and ideas are included from different side. I think there’s an expectation that everyone would support it.”
When leadership floated adding one of conservatives’ holy grails on immigration—mandatory employer use of E-Verify to confirm employees’ legal status—conservatives still withheld. Some were seeking an additional change: preventing Dreamers from sponsoring their parents. The E-Verify amendment wouldn’t have changed the whip count much, so moderates asked leadership to withdraw it. They had finally had enough of the Freedom Caucus moving the goal posts.
Asked whether he would negotiate with the Freedom Caucus on immigration again, Curbelo said, very cautiously, that if another opportunity comes moderates “will be much better prepared. We’re not starting from scratch, [and] and we know what to expect.”
But there’s not going to be another broad immigration bill negotiated in the House for a long time.
Additional reporting by Amy Pollard.
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