Paul Ryan and his longtime No. 2 Kevin McCarthy have maintained a unified public front on immigration — but behind the scenes, the interests of the outgoing speaker and his potential successor are colliding over controversial Dreamers legislation.
Both have vehemently opposed an effort by centrist Republicans to force votes on bills shielding young undocumented immigrants who came here as children from deportation. But to stop it, Ryan floated the possibility of reigniting talks on a bipartisan deal that President Donald Trump would get behind.
McCarthy, on the other hand, has panned that idea. He worries that such an accord codifying the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program would demoralize GOP voters whom the party needs to show up in the midterms to keep the House.
“If you want to depress [GOP voter] intensity, this is the No. 1 way to do it,” McCarthy told his colleagues in a meeting Wednesday.
Complicating matters is both men’s priorities and ambitions: Ryan, who one leadership source said is in “legacy mode,” has long spoken of Dreamers in sympathetic terms. He’d like to address the matter before he leaves office next year after two decades in Congress.
But McCarthy wants to be speaker, and DACA deal could jeopardize his chances, since conservatives hate the idea. Hard-line conservatives tanked McCarthy’s last bid for speaker in 2015, and the majority leader has made a concerted effort to court them in recent months.
“That’s one of the challenges of Ryan announcing that he was not going to seek reelection: now everybody is kind of looking to [McCarthy],” said Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), who has not signed on to the bid to force a floor vote on DACA but would like to see the situation resolved.
“Our conference is so ungovernable that it is almost impossible for a speaker to be successful,” Simpson added. McCarthy isn’t even speaker and “he’s still getting the pressure of almost being speaker.”
During a meeting with Trump at the White House this week, Ryan and McCarthy laid out their current predicament on immigration. House moderates would soon garner enough signatures to force the entire conference to vote on bipartisan DACA bills — what did the president want them to do?
Ryan made the case for re-opening talks to find a possible immigration deal, according to several sources briefed on the meeting. Trump could get his wall with Mexico, Dreamers could get legal certainty and such a deal could stave off a potential shutdown fight this fall, went the pitch.
But Trump didn’t seem interested, the sources said. Rather than jumping at the opportunity to negotiate, he told Ryan and McCarthy that the so-called discharge petition to force a vote was the House’s problem.
McCarthy, notably, hasn’t been trying to change Trump’s mind — even though the California Republican is tight with the president. That’s probably because McCarthy simply isn’t interested. Asked briefly on Thursday about the possibility of a bipartisan DACA deal this year, he said, “I don’t see a path.”
Ryan, by contrast, told reporters last week that “I want to fix this problem … I would like to have an immigration vote on the floor before the midterms.”
Ryan would never go up against Trump by pushing a bipartisan solution that the president opposes. The speaker frequently argues that there’s no point in having controversial immigration votes on bills that won’t make it into law.
"If we’re going to advance immigration legislation, let‘s advance immigration legislation that gets a presidential signature, not a presidential veto," Ryan said at a news conference Thursday.
Still, the diverging interests of Ryan and McCarthy have created an awkward dynamic. They’ve been close throughout Ryan’s tenure as speaker. But as McCarthy looks to move up, their priorities have shifted.
Such was the case with McCarthy’s recent push to pass a “rescissions“ package to cut spending, which some House Republicans viewed as another attempt to boost his standing with the far-right of the conference. The majority leader wanted to recoup money from a massive spending package Congress passed earlier this year, which conservatives and the president pummeled for weeks on end afterward, even though Trump signed it.
But Ryan was notably cooler to the idea. They worked it out in the end, coordinating with the White House on a package that left the massive spending package intact but cut Treasury accounts that have sat unused for years.
The two are similarly working out their differences privately on DACA. They’re not fighting, aides to both of them say. And since speaking with Trump, they’ve been in lock-step trying to tamp down an intra-conference war over immigration.
Over the past 48 hours, both men sat with conservatives and moderates to try to work out an agreement to head off the discharge petition. Lawmakers in the room said there was no daylight between them — at least none visible.
But it’s the endgame that’s different. Though Ryan would never go up against the president or force the issue, he also would like nothing more than for Trump to embrace a deal. His allies see a huge win for the president if Democrats agreed to a border wall. Plus, Ryan has always felt that Dreamers shouldn’t be deported for the sins of their parents.
“Ryan has wanted to find a solution to this going back five or six years; clearly there is an opportunity to do it now,” said Rep. Carlos Curbelo, a moderate Republican from Florida who is leading the discharge petition effort.
Conservatives in the House and around the county have resisted the elements of a bipartisan deal. They even assailed the president’s offer earlier this year to provide a pathway to citizenship to Dreamers in exchange for a wall and historic limits on legal immigration.
There’s little to suggest that anything has changed since then.
“Wall for DACA? That’s a nonstarter,” House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) scoffed Thursday. “It will never happen.”
Supporters of a deal say Republicans might never have a better chance. If Democrats take the House in November, Trump will probably never get his border wall.
Leaving the issue unresolved, they argue, could also trigger a government shutdown. Trump has suggested he’d veto another spending bill that doesn’t include the border fortifications. Government funding runs out Sept. 30, barely over a month before the midterms.
“There’s only so long they can wait,” said one senior Republican source. “This is coming to a head.”