Paul Ryan Buys More Time in House Immigration Battle

Rebellious moderates agree to back down for a few days. Again.

Paul Ryan gestures to his right while speaking to the press.
Speaker of the House Paul Ryan at a weekly news conference on Thursday on Capitol Hill Alex Wong/Getty Images

As he was leaving House Republicans’ two-hour immigration conference on Thursday morning, Kentucky Rep. Thomas Massie didn’t seem particularly impressed by what he’d heard.

“I say this in jest,” Massie told reporters, “but I was sitting there thinking, ‘If I could get another person to walk out of here and sign the discharge petition with me, we could end this meeting.’ ”

The meeting was prompted by a discharge petition put forward by Republican moderates, which would force a series of votes that could produce a compromise immigration bill passed by those moderates and all Democrats. The petition has ratcheted up the pressure on Republican leaders to act, and it now sits at 215 signatures, only three away from the 218 it needs. If two more Republicans sign it, Democrats believe they could pressure their last remaining holdout, Texas Rep. Henry Cuellar, into signing as well.

To head off this momentum, House Speaker Paul Ryan convened Thursday morning’s colloquy, where most of the “progress” reported by members amounted to friendly team-spirit sloganeering. “Consensus” was reached in certain areas, though not on the difficult aspects that have prevented an immigration deal for decades. The reported consensus seemed to concern structure: that moderates and conservatives would work out a new bill on the “four pillars” of immigration policy that President Donald Trump had asked to be addressed in a plan earlier this year: Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, border security, the diversity lottery, and family reunification visas (which the GOP refers to as “chain migration”).

There supposedly had been a similar “consensus” to pursue a deal around these four areas in January, but conservatives wanted more restrictive policies and moderates wanted less restrictive ones. There is no reason to believe that’s changed.

The stickiest issue has always been whether to grant DACA beneficiaries (or a broader pool of Dreamers) a path to citizenship. In one of the more risible moments of this nine-month debate, both moderate and conservative negotiators this week floated the idea that while a “special path to citizenship” would be too far for conservatives, a “bridge to the legal immigration system” might do the trick. When asked to describe how a “bridge to the legal immigration system,” which could be a visa for the DACA-eligible population, would be different from a “special path to citizenship,” neither moderate Florida Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart nor conservative North Carolina Rep. Mark Meadows would answer. They wouldn’t even confirm that the “bridge” idea exists.

“To talk about a bridge,” Meadows said, “I would have to admit there was a bridge.”

Though moderates claimed by midafternoon that a tentative deal had been struck, conservatives, like Meadows, unequivocally denied that.

The conference did, however, appear to achieve the main goal for Republican leaders: delaying the petition’s organizers from pushing it over the top for at least another few days.

Texas Rep. Michael McCaul, the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said that negotiators in the meeting had been given the “green light” to begin writing a new bill organized around the four pillars—and that, in the meantime, moderates had agreed to hold off on the discharge petition.

Asked whether Rep. Carlos Curbelo, a Florida member organizing the discharge petition effort, had agreed to put the process on ice for the time being, a spokeswoman from his office said that “moderates will continue to work in a constructive manner with Leadership and the Freedom Caucus, while maintaining the discharge petition as the back stop.” Rep. Jeff Denham, another organizer, was a little more direct, telling CNN that “the discharge petition gives us a timeline, which means we’ve got until next Tuesday to get an agreement on paper that we know we’ve got whipped and have enough votes for.” In other words, another week will pass without moderates pushing the petition over the line but maintaining that they still have the ability to do so later.

For all of the talk about how moderates were finally willing to buck Republican leaders with this discharge petition, their leadership sure seems to have an easy time getting them to delay it.

Before recess two weeks ago, moderates talked a good game about how they would have the signatures by the end of the week if there wasn’t an alternative deal in place. The promise they got, instead, was to hold this two-hour conference. After a couple hours of open-mic prattling about “pillars” and “consensus,” the moderates have agreed to hold on for another five days. The deadline of next Tuesday should be a real, rather than artificial, deadline: It’s the last day that discharge petition organizers have to reach 218 if they want their petition to be considered this month.

Diaz-Balart told reporters that he and other petition signers were well aware that leaders could just be trying to string them along until the clock runs out. When asked whether they would get the remaining signatures on Tuesday if there is no deal, though, he balked.

They will “cross that bridge when we get to it,” he said.