California Republican Rep. Jeff Denham says he has the support needed to force a vote in the House on four immigration bills to protect so-called Dreamers, despite the objections of his own party's leadership.
But he's not committing to using it yet.
The Turlock congressman is hoping that a show of support from at least 50 Republicans and most Democrats (totaling more than the 218 votes he'd need for a majority in the House) will prompt House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) to voluntarily bring the bills up for a vote, rather than risk the embarrassment of being forced to do so by a member of his own conference.
"I would hope that after we get to 218 that leadership will realize that a vote is imminent, and we bring it to the floor immediately," said Denham, who could rely on a rarely used House procedure to bypass leadership. "When you get to 218, it shows the will of Congress, and we expect to be well beyond that."
But Ryan told reporters Thursday that he doesn't support Denham's idea of a "Queen of the Hill" vote, as the maneuver is known, on immigration because President Trump may not back whatever the House passes.
"I don't want to spend our time bringing something through that I know is going to get vetoed," Ryan said. Also, the Senate has already rejected versions of the bills Denham wants to bring to a vote.
Ryan last year promised that Dreamers could "rest easy" because Congress would help them and repeated the vow to take up the issue earlier this year to help entice Democrats to vote for a spending deal, but he also pledged to conservative members long ago that no immigration bill would come up without their support.
Democrats, who have largely supported Denham's unusual effort to buck his own leadership, are skeptical that Ryan will bring up immigration bills without being forced.
"If he was, he would have already done it," Congressional Hispanic Caucus Chairwoman Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D-N.M.) said. "The only way we get Ryan to do what we need to do is we have to jam him, and I think more and more people are getting ready to do that."
Denham, who represents a heavily Latino and agricultural district, has worked behind the scenes on immigration issues for years and has publicly disagreed with the immigration positions of his party's leadership before. Even so, a Republican forcing a vote against the wishes of a House speaker of his own party would be a dramatic escalation.
It's the latest example of endangered California Republicans scrambling to showcase moderate positions in a state that is becoming more progressive and left-leaning, particularly under the Trump administration. Democrats are targeting 10 of 14 GOP-held districts in California, including Denham's, in their bid to retake the House majority in November.
But what may have initially looked like something that could have also helped his campaign may yet backfire. By publicly acknowledging that he has the votes needed to force a vote but then not following through, Denham could put himself in a bit of a political quandary in his home district, where he faces a slew of 2018 opponents. Democrats could accuse Denham of folding under pressure from his own party, while Republicans might see his moves as disloyal.
"This is something that is personal to me, it is important to my district, and yes, could there be repercussions? Absolutely, and I'm ready to take those on," Denham said, adding that he's getting support from surprising corners of the Republican conference.
He said he was unsure of when — or if — he might force a vote. "It depends on what the speaker does next," Denham said.
To no avail, Denham pleaded with Trump not to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program last fall. The program provided temporary deportation relief and work permits for hundreds of thousands of people brought to the country illegally as children, including many Californians.
Congress made a few attempts at a solution, but action stalled after a federal judge temporarily stopped the program from shutting down pending legal challenges. The Supreme Court refused the Trump administration's request to expedite the case, and it could be next fall at the earliest before it makes its way through the normal appeals process.
Denham's resolution would invoke a little-known parliamentary procedure to prompt debate and votes — without the approval of committees or leadership — on four very different immigration bills: one favored by the Trump administration, one preferred by Democrats, one bipartisan proposal and another immigration bill of Ryan's choice. Whichever got the most votes would move forward to the Senate.
All four would help Dreamers to some degree. They differ on how much border security or immigration enforcement they include. For example, the Trump-backed bill would also dramatically reduce legal immigration, while the Democrats' would only deal with legal status for Dreamers.
At least five California Republicans are among those who signed on as co-sponsors of Denham's resolution, and the majority of Democrats in the California delegation are expected to be named as co-sponsors as well.
Even if Denham moves forward and the bills get a vote, there's no guarantee that any of them would get the needed 218 votes, or that either of the two bills he supports would be the one that passes.
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3:15 p.m.: This story was updated with additional quotes from Denham.
2:50 p.m.: This story was updated with additional details about Ryan's previous statements about immigration legislation.