This week, congressional Republicans planned to vote on a pair of immigration bills that can’t pass the House — for the sake of preventing a vote on a bill that actually could.
The charade began last month, when a group of vulnerable House Republicans decided to try to force a vote on a clean DREAM Act (i.e., legislation that gave a pathway to citizenship for Dreamers without funding Trump’s wall or slashing legal immigration). Such a bill would almost certainly pass the House if brought to the floor, on the strength of its support among Democrats and a faction of Republicans who represent ethnically diverse, purple districts.
But Paul Ryan does not want it to pass. The Speaker has vowed not to allow a vote on any legislation that a majority of House Republicans oppose. And he also has no interest in undermining President Trump’s claim that the White House would love to help Dreamers but those rascally Democrats are standing in the way.
So, to get a DREAM Act to the floor, moderate Republicans started a discharge petition — a rarely used parliamentary maneuver that allows 218 House members to force a vote over a Speaker’s opposition. And once they got 213 signatures on that document, Ryan scrambled to kill the effort by promising moderates a vote on similar legislation. Specifically, the Speaker worked with them to craft a “compromise” bill — one that was moderate enough to serve as a vehicle for vulnerable Republicans to signal their sympathy for Dreamers, but right-wing enough to alienate House Democrats (thereby ensuring that no immigration legislation would pass without majority GOP support).
Republicans hoped to vote on that “compromise” Friday (after a far-right alternative went down in flames Thursday) — but the president appeared to dash those hopes with an early-morning tweet.
Trump struck similar notes Thursday, when he tweeted, “What is the purpose of the House doing good immigration bills when you need 9 votes by Democrats in the Senate, and the Dems are only looking to Obstruct (which they feel is good for them in the Mid-Terms).”
And, in one sense, the president is right: None of the bills that the House has been considering — not even the clean DREAM Act — stand much chance of passing the Senate. Every Republican involved in the House’s immigration fight is really just trying to send an advantageous message to his or her constituents. Thus, Trump is correct that, from a policy perspective, this is all a waste of time. It is unclear whether he is ignorant of — or indifferent to — the political reasons why House Republicans want to vote on doomed legislation.
That said, there is one narrow piece of immigration policy that Congress might actually be able to pass: namely, some measure that prevents immigration authorities from separating migrants from their children. In the face of overwhelming, bipartisan opposition to “family separation,” Trump signed an executive order this week instructing his administration to end the practice. But that order isn’t legally tenable: The administration still intends to jail all migrants who commit the misdemeanor offense of crossing the southern border between official points of entry — which means that, to keep families together, our government must incarcerate innocent children with their parents. But the judiciary has ruled that the government cannot do that for longer than 20 days.
So, unless the White House backs off its “zero tolerance” policy (which it definitely won’t), or the courts reverse themselves (which they almost definitely won’t), or Congress takes action, family separation will become U.S. policy again. And on Friday morning, Trump ostensibly confirmed that he does not want Congress to pass any border enforcement reforms that nine Senate Democrats would be willing to support.
Which is to say: The president has (apparently) decided that he would like to continue torturing small migrant children — and holding Dreamers hostage — until voters deliver him a nativist Senate, or Democrats agree to pay his ransom, and vote to fund his wall and slash legal immigration.