Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.), right, stands with House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) during a news conference on Capitol Hill in October 2017. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)
A small group of Republicans has launched an effort to sidestep House Speaker Paul D. Ryan and put immigration legislation on the House floor this year in a bid to secure protections for young undocumented immigrants.
Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.) filed a discharge petition Wednesday morning that, if signed by a majority of House members, would force votes on immigration bills under a so-called “queen of the hill” rule. Whichever of those bills receives the most votes, exceeding a majority, would pass the House — a setup that is calibrated to secure passage of a bipartisan compromise.
By Wednesday afternoon, 16 more Republicans had also signed the discharge petition alongside Curbelo. Most, but not all, represent swing districts with significant Latino constituencies or are retiring from the House.
The backers of the petition said they could no longer wait for Ryan (R-Wis.) and other House leaders to forge consensus on an immigration bill that could pass with only Republican support.
“We believe this institution needs to act,” Curbelo told reporters. “Immigration has paralyzed this institution for too long, and we don’t view this in any way undermining House leaders. On the contrary, we feel that we’re also empowering them to deal with a very controversial issue.”
Mindful of the treacherous politics surrounding the issue in the Republican Party, Ryan has declined to move forward with any significant immigration legislation since becoming speaker in 2015 despite personally supporting bills that would give some undocumented immigrants a pathway to stay legally in the United States. Conservatives have strongly opposed any “amnesty” for adults who have come to the U.S. illegally — and for many, that extends to “dreamers,” children brought illegally to the U.S. through no fault of their own.
As a March deadline approached for the expiration of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the Obama-era program protecting dreamers, Ryan and other GOP leaders pushed to hone a conservative bill authored by Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) and Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Tex.) that would allow a limited path to legal status for those who have been protected by DACA. But that bill included limits on legal immigration, new restrictions on hiring and other provisions that have turned off more moderate Republicans such as Curbelo and company.
Federal judges have since held up the cancellation of the DACA program, which has all but eliminated the sense of urgency among GOP leaders to bring up immigration legislation — especially in an election year.
Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Calif.), who filed the underlying resolution that Curbelo is seeking to discharge, said the petition effort was months in the making and is now moving “quicker than we had anticipated.”
Denham acknowledged that some members who might be inclined to see immigration reform legislation move forward might either be reluctant to take a tough vote in an election year or might be unwilling to back the wishes of top leaders.
“Some members are concerned about their bills or about committee assignments, but ultimately our push is to have as many members as possible show that this issue in itself is important enough that it should have a full debate,” he said.
Several Democrats familiar with the thinking of party leaders said they expect virtually all House Democrats to join the petition once enough Republicans sign on.
For the Republicans backing the discharge petition to succeed, even if they persuade all 193 Democrats to sign, they would still need to find eight more Republicans beyond the 17 current signers to reach the required 218 signatures.
That could be a tall order because lawmakers in the majority party are typically reluctant to undermine their leadership’s control of the floor by supporting a discharge. Election-year politics, however, could come into play as vulnerable incumbents are challenged on the campaign trail to support immigration reform legislation.
McCaul said the prospect of a discharge resolution has sparked fresh discussions among Republican leaders about how to get a conservative immigration bill to the House floor. “Obviously, this is going to turn the pressure up a little bit,” he said Wednesday.
Denham’s “queen of the hill” resolution would allow votes on a variety of bills, ranging from Goodlatte and McCaul’s conservative Securing America’s Future Act to a version of the Dream Act, which would grant a path to citizenship for dreamers without concessions to hard-liners, as well as a bipartisan bill that would give dreamers a path to permanent legal status alongside border security measures. The resolution also allows Ryan to bring up a bill of his own choosing.
In previous comments about efforts to force a vote on immigration legislation, Ryan told reporters last month that he didn’t want to “spend our time bringing something through that I know is going to get vetoed.”
Ryan spokeswoman AshLee Strong said Wednesday that GOP leaders would “continue to work with our members to find a solution that can both pass the House and get the president’s signature.”
Even if a compromise bill passes the House, it is far from certain to become law. A similar exercise in the Senate failed in February when none of four immigration bills brought up for a vote in that chamber won the necessary 60 votes. And President Trump has said he will sign only an immigration bill that adheres to a framework that Democrats and many Republicans have rejected outright.
The last time a discharge petition succeeded was in 2015, when 37 Republicans signed one to force a vote on a bill to reauthorize the Export-Import Bank of the United States — a government export finance agency that conservative Republicans have long sought to shut down.