Why the House May Finally Pass an Immigration Bill

Politically endangered California Republican Jeff Denham is trying to force a House vote on immigration that Paul Ryan doesn’t want to give him. Photo: Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call,Inc.

The U.S. House of Representatives has been a graveyard for major immigration legislation, especially under Republican management. When the Senate last passed a comprehensive immigration-reform bill, in 2013, the House didn’t bother to bring it or any alternative legislation up for a vote. Earlier this year, during a omnibus appropriations debate, the Senate voted four times on immigration bills, including one that encompassed the president’s latest proposal, and two others that offered protections to the Dreamers, from whom Trump removed protections last fall (though his action was at least temporarily stopped by the federal courts). House leaders did make it clear they weren’t interested in any proposals that weren’t at least as conservative as Trump’s, but didn’t hold any votes at all.

The main reason for this closed House door to immigration legislation is that the chamber’s conservatives strongly oppose any bills that offer “amnesty” (i.e., a path to citizenship, or even permanent residency) to undocumented immigrants, and thus no path to 60 votes. Yes, a minority of House Republicans could theoretically form an alliance with virtually all the House Democrats to override that conservative faction. But the GOP cherishes an informal rule (known as the Hastert Rule after the former Speaker) that no legislation a majority of House Republicans oppose should see the light of day.

But there is a difficult and little-used way around both the leadership and the Hastert Rule: something called a “discharge petition,” whereby a majority of members can force a floor vote by signing a document demanding this course of action. On the rare occasions they have succeeded, it has usually been because an individual committee chairman has refused to report legislation a majority of her or his own party’s members want to pass. Otherwise, discharge petitions are considered an existential threat to leadership and to the mores and folkways of the House. So they are usually rejected en masse by the majority party — or at least those members of the majority party who don’t want to wake up some fine morning and find their committee assignments, party campaign contributions, and tires slashed.

This year, however, there are enough Republican House members from marginal and/or heavily Latino districts to lead a reported 20 of them (so far) to sign a discharge petition aimed at setting up votes on a series of immigration bills, with the one getting the most votes passing (a procedure known as “queen of the hill”). The two ringleaders of this effort are representatives Carlos Curbelo of Florida and Jeff Denham of California. They are both in districts carried by Clinton and Obama, and both have been targeted by Democrats in this potential “wave” election. So they’ve probably concluded that playing “chicken” with Paul Ryan is no more perilous than facing voters angry at Donald Trump without cover.

Just five signatures short of the 25 Republicans needed to combine with Democrats to force a vote, the GOP rebels have some serious leverage with Ryan, who is negotiating with them for a possible alternative to the vote they are seeking. Ryan is particularly alarmed that the “queen of the hill” procedural rule the petition would set up is designed to favor bipartisan legislation that would not only annoy the always-restive conservatives of the House, but might well attract the wrath of and a veto from Donald Trump, even if it found favor in the Senate. Roll Call reports on the leadership’s maneuvers:

Leadership suggested to the Republican Conference during the weekly meeting Wednesday that they have a new plan to deal with the disparate views on immigration but did not say when they’d reveal it, Rep. Mark Sanford said.

“They alluded to some magic formula,” the South Carolina Republican said. 

“They didn’t give a specific timeline,” Texas GOP Rep. Joe Barton said. “But every one of them looked me in the eye and said they planned to bring a bill to the floor.”

That’s actually fine with House conservatives, so long as the bill brought to the floor is sponsored by House Judiciary Committee chairman Bob Goodlatte. Because it offers nothing more than temporary relief to Dreamers, it is generally regarded as more conservative than the president’s proposal. Indeed, some House Freedom Caucus members are trying to trade their votes for a must-pass Farm Bill in exchange for a clean vote on the Goodlatte bill. There’s also a good chance the White House — and perhaps the especially lethal weapon of a presidential tweetstorm — can be brought to bear to push back on Curbelo, Denham, & Co.

It’s unclear what will happen next, but the odds of the House voting on some kind of immigration bill have gone up significantly. It is probably a question of how far GOP members who perceive themselves as having little to lose are willing to go to cause the kind of trouble with Ryan, the HFC, and the White House that swing voters in their districts will both hear and appreciate.

Why the U.S. House May Finally Pass an Immigration Bill