The House’s chaotic immigration fight, explained

(June 8) At 1:42 pm on Thursday, the Associated Press reported what would have been a major breakthrough in House Republicans’ thus-far stalled immigration fight: Rep. Jeff Denham (R-CA) said he had struck a tentative deal with conservatives.

By 1:47 pm, the deal was off.

“No deal,” Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC), the chair of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, said with a chuckle, saying there was no agreement to begin with. “There is no tentative deal. There is no deal.”

That five minutes is the best articulation of the House’s immigration debate, in which moderate Republicans are pressuring Speaker Paul Ryan to call a vote on legislation to fix the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. There’s a lot of talk but no actual movement, and no one knows how this will end.

House Republicans are desperately trying to resolve what has been two decades of irreconcilable differences on immigration policy in less than a week. The backdrop to this fight is a discharge petition, pushed by a group of frustrated moderates and Democrats who want to see action on DACA, that’s only three signatures short of triggering votes on four immigration bills: two more moderate proposals, a conservative bill, and one up to Ryan to decide.

But Ryan desperately wants to avoid the messy immigration fight that would come with bringing Democrats into the immigration debate. On Thursday, he called House Republicans together for a two-hour “family meeting” on immigration policy to show moderates he’s willing to talk meaningfully about DACA and get a majority of the GOP on the same page. Moderates said they’d hold off on the petition, for now, but it was clear the meeting didn’t establish any consensus.

“I feel like a family with a small ‘f.’ That’s as nice as I could put it,” Rep. Mark Amodei (R-NV), who has signed the discharge petition, said. Republicans had left the party’s many unresolved issues, like whether to give young immigrants brought to the US illegally a path to citizenship, on the table.

But moderates say doing nothing is no longer an option. If there’s no compromise in the next week, they say, they’ll deliver the discharge petition and force Ryan to take the immigration fight to the floor.

The discharge petition is very close. Negotiations on a compromise are not.

Twenty-two Republicans and all Democrats but one — Texas Rep. Henry Cuellar — have signed the discharge petition. At 215 signatories, it requires three more to force votes on the floor. Cuellar said he has told Democratic leadership he would sign on if they promised to fight harder against the southern border wall.

The signatures would trigger votes on the House floor on four bills using an obscure rule called the “queen of the hill.” Under this rule, whichever bill passes by the biggest margin wins. As Vox’s Dara Lind explained, two of the bills that would get votes would give permanent legal status to DACA recipients; the third is a conservative proposal from Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-VA), which gives temporary status to DACA recipients, makes deep cuts to legal immigration, and boosts interior enforcement. The fourth bill is at Speaker Ryan’s discretion. Because Republicans have such a slim majority, it’s likely the more moderate proposals would pass.

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Tara Golshan