Republican leaders have held off a coup from moderate lawmakers on immigration – for now.
As Congress departed Washington for a week-long recess Thursday, the threat of an all-out GOP civil war on immigration, which seemed imminent just days ago, was suspended once again.
After a group of moderate Republicans vowed earlier this month to force a vote on a series of immigration bills against leadership’s wishes, members left DC with more signatures, but without the last handful they would need to bypass committee and bring the bills directly to the floor. Instead, members on all sides of the debate are holding out hope that negotiations with Republican leadership could yield a more uniting outcome.
“We’re continuing to move forward as exhibited today with more members signing on, but … we’re trying to allow negotiations to continue to happen. We were very productive and very close yesterday,” said Rep. Jeff Denham, a Republican from California who is leading the effort.
As of the Thursday, the discharge petition has 213 signatures of the 218 it needed to automatically trigger a vote next month on a series of immigration bills. Only one Democrat has said he won’t sign the bill and 190 have signed it. If Democrats get 192 of their 193 members to sign it, only three more Republicans arek needed to break 218.
The issue of immigration has long exposed deep-seeded political riffs among House GOP’s rank-and-file members, which is in large part why leaders have worked behind the scenes to whip against the moderate effort to force a vote on issues from border funding to citizenship. Leaders have discouraged members in private meetings from signing on and most recently have worked with conservatives and moderates to negotiate a separate deal that could come to the floor instead.
A source familiar with the negotiations told CNN that lawmakers were still stuck, however, on the question of citizenship and whether conservatives could support a plan that would give recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program a bridge to a green card that they could eventually use to apply for citizenship. Citizenship – among other things – has continued to be a key sticking point for moderates who say they won’t abandon their discharge petition unless they get a vote that includes it.
“For us, a bridge into the legal immigration system for young immigrants brought to the country as children through no fault of their own is non-negotiable, and if some colleagues want to continue insisting on denying that, well, there will be no agreement,” said Rep. Carlos Curbelo, a Florida Republican who has been leading the moderate group’s efforts on the issue.
There is still plenty of work to do and aides involved in the process have been insistent that there is still trust to rebuild on all sides after the conservative House Freedom Caucus voted against a farm bill in large numbers last week in an effort to get further concessions on immigration. But, leadership has managed to regain some control in a week that started with questions about whether House Speaker Paul Ryan – who has already announced he will retire in January 2019 – should be forced to step down sooner than later.
Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows, a North Carolina Republican, told CNN in a phone interview Thursday that California Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the majority leader, has been instrumental in trying to bring members together, going as far as seeking out individual members in person if he doesn’t get a member to pick up a phone call. (Meadows added it had happened to him.)
“I think having Kevin McCarthy on one day and then Kevin and the speaker in the next day bringing everyone together to try and negotiate an immigration solution is certainly to be applauded and it is one reason why we don’t have the full numbers on the discharge petition but it is also a reality that those who want to sign onto the discharge petition have several more days,” Meadows said.
Denham has insisted that the votes for the discharge petition are there, but that members holding back signing on because they really want to give leadership the benefit of the doubt that another deal could be worked out.
Republican Rep. Mike Kelly of Pennsylvania said he doesn’t plan to sign because “at this point, I’ve been talking to some of my friends on it and we think there’s another way to do this.”
This story has been updated.
CNN’s Tal Kopan contributed to this report.