At the beginning of a question-and-answer session with conservative members of Congress on Thursday morning, I asked the assembled members of the Freedom Caucus if they thought either of the two immigration bills set for a vote Thursday afternoon would pass. There was silence, accompanied by sly grins, until someone spoke up.
“No,” Ohio Rep. Warren Davidson said. No one bothered to offer a contrasting opinion.
By then, the bills’ demise was a safe prediction, shared widely throughout the Capitol. Within a matter of hours, the first, and more conservative of the two bills, would fail, 193–231, with 41 Republicans joining all Democrats in opposition, and the second would have such a bad whip count that the vote was initially postponed a day. (Update, June 21, 7:01 p.m. EDT: The vote has since been postponed to next week.) It’s unclear how a few nights of rest will make it any more passable, but leaders held a meeting late Thursday afternoon to take members’ questions.*
It’s ugly out there. The House is on the precipice of joining the Senate in failing to pass any legislation addressing Dreamers and border security, a legislative process that began in fits and starts last fall.
During his press conference earlier Thursday, House Speaker Paul Ryan wasn’t ready to concede that the vote on the compromise measure would fail, since doing so would have undercut his own, Hail Mary whipping operation. But that didn’t stop him from engaging in some pre-spin. Simply holding the votes, he said, would be enough to stave off a discharge petition from moderate members, which could have produced an immigration bill backed by a majority of Democrats. (The discharge petition became officially invalid when the House passed a procedural vote to consider the more conservative bill.) Ryan added that the point of holding the votes was to offer members an opportunity to “express themselves” however they saw fit.
Ryan may have been careful not to undercut Republicans’ whipping efforts—which were visibly flailing on the House floor—but President Donald Trump was happy to, first thing in the morning.
“What is the purpose?” was a thought that was on the minds of many members—conservatives, moderates, and the rank-and-file—who weren’t looking forward to walking the plank on a measure that Senate Democrats would filibuster. It was the latest instance of Trump peeving Republican leaders, who dragged the president to the Capitol on Tuesday in an effort to prove that he would have their backs on a tough vote. Instead, Trump rambled through a self-aggrandizing speech and insulted South Carolina Rep. Mark Sanford, a Freedom Caucus member, which didn’t exactly reinforce the impression that the president was with them.
“The president needs to understand that that may have actually lost him votes during that meeting,” Idaho Rep. Raul Labrador told reporters Thursday. “The reason he was there was to emphasize that he had our backs, and I think a different message was sent.”
But the bill’s failure can’t entirely be blamed on a few stray asides from the president. The drafters of the compromise bill, in their haste to finish it this week, made some sloppy errors. Most notably, the bill was supposed to offer President Trump about $25 billion for border security, including the wall, spread across several years. Instead, the bill offered $25 billion “for each of the fiscal years 2018 through 2022.” Not even President Trump had requested a $125 billion border wall—though he would have taken it—and the Rules Committee had to change it Wednesday night.
“There were enough technical drafting errors yesterday that gave me great pause,” Freedom Caucus chairman Mark Meadows told reporters. Meadows had gotten into a heated confrontation with Speaker Ryan on the floor on Wednesday, after which he said the compromise bill wasn’t “ready for primetime.”
“You don’t pass a major piece of legislation with there being errors in it,” the North Carolina congressman said Thursday.
Texas Rep. Pete Sessions, the chair of the Rules Committee, flicked away concerns about sloppy work in the rush to complete the bill. “It was two words that needed to be changed,” Sessions said. “That’s not a drafting error, it’s simply two words that were missing in the bill.” (If two missing words resulting in an unintentional $100 billion expenditure isn’t a drafting error, it’s not clear what would constitute a drafting error.)
The rush to pass the bill, combined with the full-court whipping operation from leadership and members of the administration, hit a nerve with conservatives. Their preferred bill—the one drafted by House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte and defeated on Thursday afternoon—had been introduced at the beginning of the year, and leaders slow-walked a vote on it. Meanwhile, the compromise bill was introduced on Tuesday with a Thursday vote in mind.
Labrador said that this process—delaying Goodlatte’s original bill, then trying to ram through another—is “exactly what’s broken with Congress.”
“You have a committee of jurisdiction [Goodlatte’s Judiciary Committee] that should have been allowed to put its bill on the floor, whether it failed or whether it garnered enough votes,” he continued. “But we have a leadership team that decided that the committee of jurisdiction was not wise enough to get a bill that would actually get 218 votes.”
Labrador predicted that the compromise bill would get fewer votes than the 193 that Goodlatte’s bill posted on Thursday afternoon.
Instead of voting on the compromise bill on Thursday afternoon, as they had planned, leaders held a conferencewide meeting to explain how the bill works. A few members who had already taken the time to understand the bill left the meeting early. One of them, Nevada Rep. Mark Amodei, was asked how confident leaders seemed.
“I think the fact that they’re going through the bill section by section at 5:15 the day before the bill’s supposed to be voted on,” he said, “is indicative of the fact that there’s work that needs to be done.”
*Update: This article was updated shortly after publication to reflect new information.