On latest immigration fight, moderates use conservative playbook

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Immigration showdown highlights GOP divisions 07:29

(CNN)After years of negotiations, closed-door meetings and private lobbying, a group of moderate House Republicans -- many of whom are facing the re-election campaigns of their political careers -- want an immigration vote and they're defying leadership in a way they've never done before.

This group is openly ignoring leadership's public and private pleas to abandon what is known as a discharge petition, a procedural maneuver that allows rank-and-file members to bring legislation directly to the floor and bypass the committee process.
It's the kind of hard-charging tactic that Washington has come to expect from the House Freedom Caucus -- a group of conservatives who have pushed leadership publicly and rebuked House Speaker Paul Ryan as recently as Friday on the floor when the group brought down the GOP farm bill. But, for moderates, it's a new playbook.
"They've had good strategies that have moved some of their issues forward and we're utilizing some of those same strategies," said Rep. Jeff Denham, a Republican from California who is one of the leaders of the discharge petition.
    It's a rare move for moderates who have tended in the past to share a more diverse array of viewpoints on tactics and have practiced deference to leadership, or at the very least expressed their frustrations quietly.
    But, this moment is different. Faced with a potential blue wave and anti-Trump sentiments back home, members from swing districts or those where Hillary Clinton won in a landslide are hungry to distinguish themselves in any way possible. Moderates lament that they've been forced to take tough messaging votes to boost conservatives. And now, they want their chance. Without it, many say, it's hard to show voters where they stand and that leadership's calls to wait just a little longer aren't compelling any more.
    "We have waited and hoped the seven years I've been here and the last time we did anything on (immigration), cassette tapes were the big music thing 35 years ago," said Rep. Mark Amodei, a Republican from Nevada. "I am embarrassed that we have not had the chance to vote on anything on the floor. I just want to be counted on the floor."
    The discharge petition has enraged Republican leaders whose priority now is making sure the base turns out in the midterm election. Leaders fear that opening the House floor up to an unpredictable series of votes on immigration bills -- including legislation that has Democratic support -- could depress GOP base turnout in the midterms. In a closed-door conference meeting last week, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy told members to put down their phones and listen as he implored them not to push forward with the petition.
    "Discharges are no small thing. They hurt the conference and that is the last thing we should be doing right now," a person familiar with the meeting told CNN about McCarthy's argument. House Speaker Ryan also hasn't minced words on the damage he believes the petition could do to the party and told reporters last week that attempts were "futile" because any bill that passed wouldn't have the signature of the President anyway.
    "We've had more of these things in recent years than you might think from the more moderate wing of the party," Rep. Tom Cole, a Republican from Oklahoma and a leadership ally told CNN. "I'm not critical of them for that, but they see the more conservative wing doing the same thing so you can't say it's legitimate for one group to do it and not the other so I don't question the tactics here. They're members. These are the rules of the House. They have every right to do it. If you ask me if it is politically wise of them and for the greater good, I don't."
    For now, leadership is continuing to push the final five moderates to hold off on signing the discharge petition, promising a vote on not just a conservative immigration proposal, but also another piece of legislation of the moderates' choosing. That was the deal moderates thought they were moving toward Friday when the House Freedom Caucus brought down the farm bill because they wanted a vote on the conservative bill sooner.
    Now, multiple sources tell CNN mistrust between moderates and the House Freedom Caucus has elevated and the push for the discharge petition is full steam ahead.
    "I would say given the breaking of the agreement that was made today, you are going to see more Republicans that are frustrated and angry enough to sign onto something that they've never signed onto before," Denham said last week.
    Typically, moderates have worked behind the scenes to strike deals and curry favor with leadership. During the debate over the tax bill, a group of GOP lawmakers from high-tax states like New York, New Jersey and California worked tirelessly with leaders behind closed doors to ensure that voters back home would be able to deduct state and local property and income taxes up to $10,000.
    And during the health care debate, it was a moderate -- Rep. Tom MacArthur, a Republican from New Jersey -- who ultimately brokered the deal with the House Freedom Caucus that helped leadership win enough votes to pass health care out of the House.
    But just like political necessity and fear of primary challengers after 2010 forced House conservatives to push their leaders to the right on issues from spending bills to agricultural policy, the fear of the midterms has emboldened moderates.
    "I know leadership is putting on a full court press to stop any more GOP members from signing on, but there are still some folks in favor of a (bill to save the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program) who have not signed the discharge petition so I'm hoping they'll come up to the well of the House and sign it," said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Republican from Florida who has signed the petition.
    Members of the Freedom Caucus look at their moderate colleagues' recent actions and some sympathize, saying it's a side effect of leadership's resistance to bring up bills that aren't already guaranteed reveal schisms within their ranks.
    "I think everyone is sick of the way this place operates," said Rep. Justin Amash, a Republican from Michigan. "There are some people who put up with it because it benefits them in campaign season to go along with leadership on everything, but there are a lot of people who are breaking ranks now and it's not surprising."