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House GOP leaders defeat effort by moderates to force a vote on bipartisan legislation for 'Dreamers'

House GOP leaders defeat effort by moderates to force a vote on bipartisan legislation for 'Dreamers'
Rep. Jeff Denham of Turlock, shown in April, was among the moderate Republicans leading the effort to force a vote on immigration bills. (Bill Clark / CQ Roll Call)

An effort by moderate Republicans to force votes on a bipartisan immigration bill failed in the House on Tuesday, with members agreeing instead to vote on legislation that would guarantee funds for President Trump’s proposed border wall.

The agreement meant defeat, at least for now, for an effort led by Rep. Jeff Denham of Turlock and other GOP moderates to use a rare parliamentary maneuver known as a discharge petition to force the House to vote on the bipartisan immigration plan, and three other bills, over the objections of party leaders.

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The dissident Republicans, frustrated by Congress’ failure to resolve the legal status of “Dreamers” — people brought to the U.S. illegally as children — had combined with the chamber’s Democrats to try to force a vote on a plan that would offer the young immigrants a pathway to citizenship.

Defeat of the effort greatly reduces the chances — already slim — that Congress could pass any form of Dreamer legislation before this year’s midterm election.

The moderate group had claimed to have the 218 supporters — a majority of the House — needed to force a vote. But as they neared the goal, GOP leaders increased pressure on party members who had said they were willing to sign the petition.

Tuesday evening, with the petition stuck at 216 signatures, the moderates backed down, accepting a proposal by Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) to put aside their effort and instead have the House debate two bills next week — both of which have only Republican support.

“Members across the Republican Conference have negotiated directly and in good faith with each other for several weeks, and as a result, the House will consider two bills next week that will avert the discharge petition and resolve the border security and immigration issues,” Ryan’s spokeswoman, AshLee Strong, said in a statement.

One bill would be a hard-line immigration enforcement proposal backed by conservatives that even its supporters acknowledge doesn't have enough support to pass the House.

The other, touted by Ryan as a compromise, was still being cobbled together by GOP leaders late Tuesday, and key provisions were uncertain. Earlier versions of that bill would have given an opportunity for citizenship to some Dreamers, providing visas to them by eliminating the current diversity lottery visa program.

While the exact provisions remain unclear, what does seem all but certain is that neither proposal would receive the backing of Democrats or be able to pass the Senate. Both measures would include new immigration restrictions and money for Trump’s border wall, which Democrats oppose.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) quickly indicated that Democrats will oppose the bills.

"If Republicans plan to use Dreamers as a way to advance [Trump's] xenophobic, anti-immigrant agenda, they will get a fight from House Democrats," she said on Twitter.

On the House floor, those who pushed the discharge petition lamented the lost chance for bipartisan debate on immigration legislation.

"In my 3½ short years in Washington, D.C., I've learned a very simple thing. If you want to get big things done, you've got to do actually do it together, and the only way that this body gets things done is if we work across the aisle to get things done," said Rep. Will Hurd (R-Texas), one of the leaders of the moderate group.

Denham did not respond to requests for comment.

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Moderate and conservative Republicans have struggled for years to come together on immigration, and had been trying in recent weeks for a compromise that would avoid dividing GOP ranks in an election year.

House leaders warned that forcing votes on an immigration measure that could be portrayed as amnesty for illegal immigrants would risk alienating conservative voters and depressing Republican turnout in the midterm, potentially handing control of the House to Democrats.

Many of the moderates, however, like Denham, represent districts with large numbers of Latino voters and have felt political pressure to resolve the legislative stalemate over the Dreamers.

Last fall Trump ended President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which protected young immigrants who met certain requirements from deportation. The Senate made several unsuccessful attempts to pass a bill to resolve their status; the House hasn’t brought up any for consideration. Court orders have kept the program alive for the time being, while litigation continues.

House GOP leaders late last week asked the moderate group for more time to reach a compromise. The moderates agreed, and talks among Republicans continued throughout the day Tuesday. After a closed-door meeting in Ryan’s office, both sides emerged saying they were nearing an agreement.

“We’re still working to finalize,” House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield) said. “We are close. We are very close.”

The House calendar limits when a discharge petition can be considered on the House floor, and because the petition didn't reach 218 votes Tuesday night, the only two other dates a discharge petition could be considered this year are July 23 or Dec. 10, when Congress probably will be rushing to finish its work before the congressional session ends.

All of California’s 39 Democratic House members signed the petition, as have three of the state’s 14 Republican representatives — Denham and Reps. David Valadao of Hanford and Steve Knight of Palmdale.

Prospects for a legislative solution to the issue remain dim. Even if one of the bills under consideration next week passes the House, a party-line measure on immigration would not have the support to get through the Senate.

The Senate earlier this year voted on four immigration bills; none received enough support to pass.

8:05 p.m.: This article was updated to reflect the defeat of the discharge petition effort.

This article was originally published at 3 a.m.

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