Speaker Paul Ryan is struggling to come up with a game plan on immigration — and staring down a conservative backlash if he makes the wrong step.
The Wisconsin Republican is under increasing pressure from hard-liners in the House Freedom Caucus to put a conservative Dreamer solution on the House floor. Chairman Mark Meadows said Wednesday that while he didn’t think there was talk about replacing Ryan at the moment, “there are certainly new conversations that would involve new leadership.”
“I can say that it is a defining moment for this speaker: If he gets it wrong, it will have consequences for him, but it will also have consequences for the rest of the Republican Party,” Meadows told reporters.
But many moderate Republicans are not on board with the conservative proposal, offered by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.). It does not provide a pathway to citizenship hundreds of thousands of young undocumented immigrants and includes a controversial provision to force employers to verify the legal status of their employees.
In fact, GOP leaders are far from the 218 votes needed to pass it, according to multiple senior Republican sources familiar with the results of a tentative vote count Wednesday. And the speaker has told some members privately that he does not want to put the bill up for a roll call unless it can pass.
“We’re not in agreement on our side on how to properly address it,” House Majority Whip Steve Scalise said Friday, before the whip. “We’ve been having a lot of meetings with members… to see if we can come to a consensus. We’re not there yet… but we ought to continue working to get to an agreement.”
Agitation on the right comes as GOP leaders have been working behind closed doors to whip the bill — though conservatives whisper that those efforts have been disingenuous. GOP leaders have leaned on Goodlatte to make changes to the bill that will mollify centrists.
The proposal has been praised by President Donald Trump but is even less conciliatory than his immigration framework. Unlike the White House plan, the Goodlatte bill doesn’t include a shot at citizenship for young adults who came to the U.S. as minors. It includes money for border security and cuts to legal immigration, as Trump wants, but also cracks down on sanctuary cities and unaccompanied minors.
The biggest flash point for House Republicans, however, is the E-verify provision requiring employers to cross-check the legal status of those they hire. Republicans from agriculture-heavy districts like California Reps. Jeff Denham and David Valadao have expressed concerns that the mandate would disrupt the primary labor force in their regions.
Goodlatte and House Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Conaway of Texas recently came to an agreement to include new agriculture provisions to the bill that Conaway says ensure undocumented workers picking crops wouldn’t suddenly be removed.
“We’ll be rolling it out shortly, but mechanically we’re working with the growers and slaughterhouses to allow the folks that are here to transition into that program in ways that employers can assist in,” Conaway said. “The folks who are in the country illegally working could transition into that program.”
But some senior Republicans don’t think that change will be enough. Other moderates say privately that Goodlatte, an immigration hawk, has seemed unwilling to negotiate with members of the Conference who want to move the bill further to the center.
If Goodlatte doesn’t, he could have a problem.
“I’m a ‘no’ on the bill as is. And I would be surprised if that version of it can get any opportunity to pass because there are so many problems with it,” said Rep. Thomas Reed, a New York Republican and leader of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus.
For the past few weeks, conservatives have complained that leadership team isn’t pushing the moderates hard enough. GOP leaders, especially Scalise, have pushed back hard on that assessment — including in one recent Republican Study Committee meeting where he took the group’s top staffer to task for suggesting as much.
The truth is that GOP leaders are divided on the matter. Some want to put the bill on the floor for a vote; others are unenthused, according to several sources familiar with each leadership office’s thinking. And a third group has simply floated voting on the bill to show conservatives that the support isn’t there.
Even if the bill were to pass the House, it would be certain to fall flat in the Senate where Democratic support is needed to clear a 60-vote threshold.
Those close to Ryan say the speaker wants to find a solution for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, even as Democrats accuse him of cowering behind Trump and conservatives say he’s out of step with the GOP base.
"We’ve got to solve this problem," Ryan told reporters on Wednesday. "We want to solve DACA. But we also want to solve DACA in a comprehensive way so we don’t have a DACA problem in five years, right?"
Ryan signaled — once again — that he’s only going to back an immigration proposal that has White House support.
"The president did a very good job of putting a sincere offer on the table," Ryan said. "And that sincere offer that he put on the table should be the framework through which we come together to find a solution."
Last week, Ryan successfully persuaded 167 Republicans to back a sweeping budget deal that raises government spending by $300 billion and increases the more than $20 trillion debt ceiling. That vote tally suggests that Ryan still has serious pull with the Conference even on sensitive issues, despite grumbling from conservatives about the Wisconsin Republican’s leadership.
It only takes one member to file a motion to boot Ryan from the speakership and throw the House into chaos. But while conservatives might be agitating, much of the conference won’t stand for a mutiny any time soon.
And it only takes one member to file a motion to boot him from the speakership and throw the House into chaos. It’s a reality that has deeply frustrated some lawmakers.
“It’s all about ego,” Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) said of Meadows’ comments. “These people love being on the front page of the paper and treated like they’re these big legislative power players in town when all they are is legislative terrorists.”