On Wednesday, two more Republicans signed on to a petition that would force an open-ended and unpredictable immigration debate onto the House floor – a nightmare scenario that the White House and GOP leaders seem, at least at the moment, unable to stop.
The decisions by Republican Reps. John Katko of New York and Dave Trott of Michigan to sign on to the petition came in the wake of private urgings from House Speaker Paul Ryan to his GOP colleagues not to add their names to the list. The duo’s act of defiance brought the number of Republicans signed onto the effort to 20, just five short of the number they need to force votes on four competing measures aimed at preserving the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. (That math – 25 Republicans – is dependent on all 193 Democrats supporting the effort.)
At the heart of the debate is the long-standing division within the GOP conference over what to do on immigration reform – and the popular DACA program in particular – amid swirling political winds.
On one end of the debate stand Trump, Ryan and the rest of the House Republican leaders who view a wide-open floor debate – and a series of roll-call votes – as a potentially disastrous visual for the party and one without any likely positive result. Ryan called such efforts “futile” on Thursday.
Trump, who ran hard on the need to toughen US immigration policy by, among other things, building a wall on the southern border, has little interest in some sort of compromise immigration legislation crafted by two dozen Republicans and congressional Democrats. He has said in recent days that he will push for full funding of his border wall in the next budget negotiation and has even floated the possibility he would be willing to shut down the federal government if his demands are not met.
On the other side you have a group of moderate Republicans and those in either swing seats or seats with large Hispanic populations. California Republican Rep. Jeff Denham is leading the charge on the petition effort; he represents a seat in which the population is nearly 50% Hispanic. The Republican rebels are driven by electoral worries and frustration, having spent years being told by their leaders to bide their time and they would, eventually, get the immigration debate they have been pushing for.
This is far from the first time that fissures within the Republican party over immigration have been on public display.
In the summer of 2007, President George W. Bush pushed hard on a comprehensive immigration reform effort. Arizona Sen. John McCain, at the time a leading candidate for the GOP presidential nomination, also put his full political force behind it. His primary opponents – led by former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney – painted McCain as soft on immigration and GOP primary voters rapidly soured on the Arizona Senator. The bill failed a procedural vote in June of that year, and McCain walked away from any further attempts at reform as he sought (and eventually won) the GOP nod.
In 2013, following a crushing defeat in the 2012 presidential race in which GOP nominee Romney won only 27% of Hispanic voters nationwide, a handful of Senate Republicans – including McCain and 2016 presidential aspirant Marco Rubio of Florida – led the charge, again, for comprehensive immigration reform. The bill passed the Senate by a remarkable 68-32 vote in June 2013. The House, run by more conservative Republicans who viewed the Senate bill as making far too many concessions to undocumented immigrants, refused to take up the legislation at all.
The midterm election victories for Republicans in 2014 seemed to prove that engaging on any sort of compromise deal on immigration was totally unnecessary and, in fact, was anathema to the desires of the party’s base.
That belief was solidified by the rise of Trump in late 2015 and early 2016. Trump’s candidacy was fueled by his insistence that immigration policies needed to be hardened and that the Republican party had let down its voters by not pushing more aggressively for tighter border security in recent years.
Which brings us, roughly, to today. Denham and other leaders in the petition movement have privately expressed confidence that they have the 25 GOP votes they need to force the leadership’s hand. Democrats, who had held off signing the petition to make clear this wasn’t a purely partisan effort, are likely to begin signing as soon as today.
At the moment, there appears to be a total of zero good options for Ryan and the rest of the GOP leaders to slide their way out of this. Give in to Denham’s crowd and the immigration hardliners within the GOP conference – of which there are many – could well rebel in droves. Keep fighting the petition and run the risk of being cast as decidedly weak if and when the 25th Republican signs on to it.
Ryan is boxed in. His only option is to find an alternative piece of legislation that can satisfy the demands of Denham and avoid this showdown. But, if such a plan was readily available, Ryan would have already turned to it. That he hasn’t suggests he may out of useable, much less good, options.