House GOP Leaders Hope to Tee Up Tough Immigration Bill

Many Republicans are rallying around the Goodlatte-McCaul measure, but moderates and lawmakers in agricultural districts have concerns.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte listens as Homeland Security Chairman Michael McCaul speaks during a news conference on their immigration bill on Jan. 10.
AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin
Feb. 26, 2018, 8 p.m.

The Senate failed to pass immigration legislation and the courts are still deliberating over the program at the center of the debate, but House Republican leaders nonetheless want to move ahead with a hard-line, partisan immigration bill.

Standing in their way, with less than a week to go before President Trump’s imposed deadline of March 5, are a host of agriculture concerns and the delicate balance between the attitudes of moderate and conservative Republicans—not to mention their often clashing personalities.

Following a floor whip two weeks ago, House Majority Whip Steve Scalise and other leaders made phone calls over last week’s recess to gauge support for the tough, comprehensive bill sponsored by Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte and Homeland Security Chairman Michael McCaul.

Scalise said during a Fox and Friends appearance Monday morning that he has a good sense of his conference’s disagreements and wants to move forward on the measure despite the Senate’s failure two weeks ago to move any of the chamber’s four proposed bills, including one that resembled the Goodlatte-McCaul bill.

“As we saw, getting 60 votes in the Senate on anything is difficult. The Senate’s going to have to deal with their own issues. It would be really good if we could get something passed out of the House first, and I think Goodlatte-McCaul is the answer,” Scalise said.

The opinion that the House should pass something tracks generally among his members, but whether the Goodlatte-McCaul bill is the answer remains a matter of dispute. House Republicans want to establish a unified position, not just so they can follow through on Trump’s demand that Congress pass legislation granting legal status to immigrants who came to the country illegally as children, but also so the House does not get jammed by the Senate.

After the Senate failed to advance its bills, Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn said a likely path for a fix to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program would be a short-term measure attached to an omnibus spending bill. House Republicans, particularly the conservative flank, have strongly advocated that spending legislation and immigration bills remain separate, so passing their own bill would be a way to protect that position.

“Kicking the can and doing patches is the swamp. Let’s do good policy instead,” said Rep. Dave Brat, a member of the House Freedom Caucus. “Right now on immigration they’re just throwing spaghetti at the wall. They’re just making things up that sound like marketing taglines. … Our job is not to follow what the Senate does. Our job is to represent the people.”

The road to a unified House GOP position, however, has exposed old intraparty rifts. The Freedom Caucus has been relentlessly pushing the Goodlatte-McCaul bill. The group’s chairman, Rep. Mark Meadows, went so far as to predict earlier this month that leaders could face repercussions if they fail to handle this bill to conservatives’ satisfaction. That has rubbed some members loyal to Speaker Paul Ryan the wrong way. Also at issue is Goodlatte’s longtime reputation for having an unyielding legislative style.

“One problem is some people whipped ‘no’ because they don’t like the way Mark Meadows has handled this. Others told me … they whipped ‘no’ to send a message to Goodlatte for not listening to them,” said one member of the GOP whip team, speaking anonymously to discuss internal deliberations. “There is some disagreement about a path forward. … I think everyone agrees we need a House position.”

Meanwhile, House GOP moderates think the Goodlatte bill is simply too harsh: It provides no special path to citizenship for DACA recipients, includes almost twice as much border-wall money as the Trump administration requested, ends the diversity visa lottery system, scales back family green cards to spouses and minor relatives, and mandates companies use E-Verify. Others find it generally too comprehensive and want to deal only with the four issues Trump and bipartisan congressional leaders agreed to tackle: DACA, the border wall, the diversity visa lottery, and family-based migration.

“It’s a bill I have a major issues with,” Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart said. “That framework is way too expansive. … There has been a bipartisan agreement on four issues right now. This goes way beyond that.”

So far, the agricultural portion of the bill has been most controversial for GOP leaders. Republicans in states with farms, orchards, ranches, and other industries that rely heavily on guest workers think the bill is too prohibitive on immigrant labor.

“A lot of these guys are widely supportive of the building of the wall and cracking down on illegal immigration, but they’re extremely concerned about significant interests in their districts that are driven by these workers,” said a House GOP leadership aide.

Goodlatte revised the bill, but some consider it still too restrictive. For instance, members worry that a labor shortage could result from a section requiring undocumented workers to “touch back,” or travel back to their home countries before they can be eligible for worker visas.

“In order to get 218 votes and get people like me on board, they’re going to have to do something about the guest-worker program for agriculture,” said Rep. Dennis Ross, who represents a farm-heavy Florida district.

Any changes to that portion of the bill, however, would also have to appease conservatives, who prefer to retrain American workers to fill those positions rather than accommodate immigrants.

Although Trump has said he wants a bill by March 5, that deadline will not likely be met; the Senate failed to act, and the House is in session only two days this week because the late Rev. Billy Graham will lie in honor in the Capitol. Moreover, members view the date as arbitrary because Trump is restricted from ending the DACA program. On Monday, the Supreme Court declined to take up a lower court’s ruling, which barred the Trump administration from ending the program. That means the case could be held up in appeals courts until at least next year.

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