A bipartisan group of House members led by California Rep. Jeff Denham, a Republican from Turlock, filed a petition Wednesday to force a vote on four immigration bills over the objections of GOP leadership.
It's rare for a Republican lawmaker to attempt to circumvent the wishes of a House speaker from his or her own party. Getting the backing of enough colleagues to actually take advantage of the arcane maneuver is almost unheard of.
The petition needs signatures from a majority of House members to be considered. If at least 25 Republicans sign the so-called discharge petition, it is expected that all Democrats also will sign, providing the signatures needed to force a vote.
Seventeen House Republicans had signed as of Wednesday evening, and Denham said he was "extremely confident" that the rest of the GOP members he needed would follow closely behind.
A discharge petition can be brought up only on the first and third Monday of the month when the House is in session. June 25 is the next time the House is in session on one of those Mondays.
Denham hopes the petition will pressure House Speaker Paul D. Ryan to voluntarily allow a debate and voting on an immigration bill, rather than face the embarrassment of being forced to do so.
"The speaker can still bring up a bill any time he wants, but if he doesn't, June 25 is coming," Denham said.
Democrats and some rank-and-file Republicans say they are frustrated that Ryan won't allow consideration of bills to address the status of hundreds of thousands of people brought to the country illegally as children, including many Californians. These so-called Dreamers were provided temporary deportation relief and work permits under the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
Trump ended the program last fall and told the House and Senate they had until March 5 to fix it. Congress' attempts at a solution stalled after a federal judge temporarily stopped the program from shutting down amid pending legal challenges. The Supreme Court refused the Trump administration's request to expedite the case, and it could be fall at the earliest before it makes its way through the normal appeals process.
House GOP leaders have been urging lawmakers not to sign the petition. Ryan has said voting on the four bills is a waste of time because President Trump may not be willing to sign whatever the House passes. "We continue to work with our members to find a solution that can both pass the House and get the president's signature," said Ryan's spokeswoman, AshLee Strong.
The White House on Wednesday declined to weigh in on the procedural move and instead reiterated the president's priorities for an immigration bill, which have been a nonstarter in Congress.
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a Republican from Bakersfield, told reporters Wednesday that he didn't "believe in discharge petitions" because they took precedence over normal House procedures.
Some members have outwardly chafed at Ryan's assertion that the House should follow the president's lead on the issue.
"I'm not abdicating my responsibilities to the White House," said Utah Republican Rep. Mia Love, among those who signed the petition. "This is about making sure that we have a vote on the floor."
If the discharge petition gets the backing of more than half of all House members, it would trigger what is called a "queen of the Hill" vote on four immigration bills: one favored by the Trump administration, one preferred by Democrats, one bipartisan proposal and an immigration bill of Ryan's choice. If more than one is passed, the bill with the most votes would move forward to the Senate.
All four would help Dreamers to some degree, though they differ on how much border security or immigration enforcement they include in exchange. For example, the Trump-backed bill also would dramatically reduce legal immigration and provide money to build a wall at the southern border, while the Democrats' favored bill would deal only with legal status for Dreamers.
Denham got 247 House members to sign on as co-sponsors of an earlier resolution requesting a vote, including all 39 California House Democrats and five of the state's 14 Republicans. But some of those supporters oppose using the more aggressive tactic of a discharge petition.
Denham and Rep. David Valadao, a Republican from Hanford, are the only two California Republicans to sign onto the discharge petition so far.
Rep. Doug LaMalfa, a Republican from Richvale, in Butte County, who co-sponsored the resolution, said he was not signing the petition because "it's not really good team ball" to go around the leadership of your own party.
"A vote will come around the corner on this eventually," LaMalfa said. "It's a patience thing. Pushing the issue like this, I think, is just hurting our own cause."
Democrats said they were waiting for Republicans to take the lead, because if Democrats had tried to force a vote through a discharge petition, it would be seen as partisan. Denham said he asked them to wait to demonstrate how many Republicans wanted a vote.
Rep. Pete Aguilar, a Democrat from Redlands and the sponsor of one of the bills that would be considered, said frustration had grown since there has been no corresponding movement in the House after the Senate voted on several immigration bills in February. None of the Senate bills got enough support to pass.
"At least the Senate debated and discussed some competing measures. Here in the House, the people's House, it's sad that we don't even get an option because one individual, the speaker, doesn't want that to happen, even if committee chairs want to have debate, even if rank-and-file members want to have debate," Aguilar said. "I think that frustration is fairly palpable on both sides of the aisle among rank-and-file members."
Denham and Valadao represent heavily Latino and agricultural districts and have worked behind the scenes on immigration issues for years. While they've publicly disagreed with party leaders on immigration before, a discharge petition is a dramatic escalation of the difference of opinion. Both are being heavily targeted by the national Democratic Party in 2018.
A discharge petition has been successfully used only twice in the last 20 years — in 2002 to pass campaign finance legislation, and in 2015 to renew the charter of the Export-Import Bank.
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3:05 p.m.: The article was updated with the latest signatures and reaction from McCarthy, Love and others.
9:10 a.m.: The article was updated with reaction from Paul Ryan's office.
8 a.m.: The article was updated with reaction from Democrats and additional context.