How the Republican Moderates Lost on Immigration

So much for the rebellion in the House.

Republican Reps. Jeff Denham, Carlos Curbelo, Will Hurd.
Republican Reps. Jeff Denham, Carlos Curbelo, Will Hurd. Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photos by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images (3).

“We are not bluffing.”

So a somewhat irritated Florida Rep. Carlos Curbelo told me on Wednesday morning as he was leaving a House GOP meeting. Curbelo and his moderate GOP colleagues had been trying for weeks to get enough signatures on what is known as a discharge petition—a means of getting a vote on legislation without leaders’ consent—in order to force votes on a series of immigration bills, with the most bipartisan one the likeliest to succeed. Tuesday was a soft deadline for that effort. But on Tuesday night, moderates led by Curbelo and California Rep. Jeff Denham failed to get the signatures and resigned themselves instead to a plan from Republican leaders to bring up two partisan bills next week: one they hate (and that won’t pass), and a Republican-only “compromise” bill that was unfinished as of Wednesday morning. It’s not clear that will pass, either.

Heading off the discharge petition, and calling moderates’ bluff that they would get the signatures they needed if a deal hadn’t been struck by Tuesday night, was a big win for House Speaker Paul Ryan. And it upset an emerging narrative about how moderates, long pushed around by the most conservative parts of the caucus, finally had the rest of the conference by the throat.

The first vote next week will be on the Goodlatte–McCaul bill, which offers temporary legal status for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals beneficiaries in exchange for essentially every conservative demand on immigration policy. That’s the bill the Freedom Caucus wants, and, again, it will fail. The second bill is the Republican “compromise” bill that conservatives and moderates have been negotiating for weeks. Those negotiations, as of early Wednesday afternoon, are still not complete.

While they wouldn’t go into much detail about what the to-be-finalized compromise bill will look like, the way Denham and Curbelo talked about it on Wednesday morning suggests it will look roughly similar in structure to President Trump’s immigration plan—a version of which received only got 39 votes in the Senate back in February. It will address each of Trump’s “four pillars” for reform: Dreamers, border security, the diversity lottery, and family-based visas, with some give-and-take from each side of the Republican spectrum.

Per Denham, the bill will “address the 1.8 million Dreamers that are out there today” and “give them a pathway forward.” When asked whether the bill would cut legal immigration levels elsewhere, something the moderates have only reluctantly agreed to negotiate on, Curbelo said, cagily, that “there are changes to the immigration system to accommodate young immigrants brought to this country.” Denham, meanwhile, noted that the 2013 comprehensive immigration reform bill that Democrats supported—which offered a path to citizenship for many millions more undocumented immigrants than just the Dreamers—also included reforms to the diversity lottery and family-based visas, so they were hopeful they could get Democratic support.

That’s unlikely, since House Democrats have rejected cuts to legal immigration as a condition for protecting Dreamers. House Republican moderates didn’t want to go down this path, either, and earlier this year had rallied around a bipartisan bill that would have focused exclusively on protections for Dreamers and border security. That was the narrow bill that the discharge petition would have been most likely to produce.

The discharge petition is not entirely dead just yet, and moderates technically have some leverage remaining. If the whip count for the compromise bill falls apart—and it’s not looking like conservatives are on board with it just yet—the moderates could join Democrats to block a procedural vote setting up the two votes, preserving the discharge petition and their leverage over the speaker. They would still then have to get those final two signatures, though, and even if they did, they wouldn’t be able to vote until late July.

But does anyone really believe that the moderates, who have received all sorts of premature press throughout this process about how they’re finally standing up to leadership and showing “backbone” but then failed to follow through on Tuesday night, are willing to follow through the next time they get a chance? Or that they’d even have the numbers if they wanted to?

The leaders of the effort have been overstating how much control they have to push the discharge petition over the top all along. The remaining potential signers are not in Curbelo and Denham’s pocket, just waiting for the signal. Those potential signers have agency, and they decided on Tuesday night that the procedural offer from leadership—or other side deals—was good enough for them. Two of the most-watched potential signers, Washington Rep. Dan Newhouse and Florida Rep. Dennis Ross, suggested that they mostly wanted to address guest workers for the agricultural industry. When leadership offered them a vote on a separate bill for that later this summer, they were easily picked off. It sounds like someone—Speaker Paul Ryan—has more control over those members than the leaders of the petition effort do.

But the Curbelo comment from Wednesday morning that’s most worthy of litigation is not that they might still push through the petition, or that this is an outcome they’re totally pleased with. It was the following: “Our goal is to make law.”

If the goal is to get an immigration bill signed into law, none of the options are great at this point. But the best chance—and the one moderates were originally committed to with the discharge petition—was to pass a bipartisan bill out of the House. The strategy for which moderates have settled is to try to pass a partisan bill out of the House, where all of the negotiating has been between factions on one side of the aisle. That “compromise” bill, like most Republican-only bills passed out of the House, will go nowhere in the Senate. If it even gets that far.

It would, however, give House Republicans in competitive districts an opportunity to say that they did their job in passing a bill to protect the Dreamers, and it was Democrats and those stuffed shirts in the Senate who refused to act. No law is being made here. But useful talking points? Maybe. And that, it seems, is what the moderates have decided is worth settling for.