The day started with a plea for unity around agriculture policy and welfare reform, and promptly devolved into factional sniping over immigration.
Such has the week been for House Republican leaders, who are trying to push a farm bill across the finish line but are being barraged by their right and left flanks, both of whom are pursuing procedural tactics to force a vote on an immigration overhaul.
During a private morning meeting, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy cautioned members against being consumed by infighting over immigration, especially as they are poised to pass a sweeping agriculture bill this week. The bill includes the addition of work requirements for food-stamp recipients, a measure McCarthy suggested would allow the GOP to credibly claim that they followed through on their pledge to reform welfare programs, according to a source in the room.
Yet the farm bill may now become a casualty of exactly the kind of infighting McCarthy was lamenting, engulfed in a skirmish between the moderate and conservative wings of the party.
To try to head off that result, Speaker Paul Ryan and McCarthy planned to hold separate Wednesday evening meetings with moderate and conservatives.
In a sense, moderate Republicans and the conservative House Freedom Caucus have the same goal: They want to force a vote on an immigration-reform package, out of frustration that the legislative push stalled earlier this year. Their tactics, however, have put them at cross purposes.
Moderates, led by Reps. Jeff Denham and Carlos Curbelo, are signing onto a discharge petition, which would force a Queen of the Hill process. Four immigration bills would come to the floor, and whichever gets the most votes would advance. As of Wednesday afternoon, 20 members had signed on to the bill, and if the sponsors reach 25, Denham said he has a commitment from Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer that enough Democrats would also sign on to pass it.
“We’ve got to get something that is viable,” said Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, a Republican who signed the petition. “Whether it is one of these four bills … or—because of the pressure created by this—something else that a lot of us are working, we’ve got to keep pushing.”
Conservatives—and to a certain extent, GOP leadership—view the effort as a subversion of the will of the conference, and are biting their nails as moderates close in on the 25-signature sweet spot. They believe the process would result in a Democrat-friendly immigration bill passing, one that would draw a veto from President Trump if the Senate passed it too. (Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has given no indication that he would put such a measure on his chamber’s floor for a vote.)
“We’re nervous about this immigration issue coming to a head,” said Rep. Jim Jordan, a member of the Freedom Caucus. “Using a discharge petition to accomplish something consistent with the results of the election is one thing, using a discharge petition to accomplish something that our party is not for is another thing.”
As a result, Jordan and his cohorts are threatening to hold up the farm bill unless they get a solid assurance from McCarthy that leaders will push immigration legislation that could pass the House with only Republican support.
The group’s chairman, Rep. Mark Meadows, said he has “enough” votes in his pocket in support of the farm bill if leaders commit to bring to the floor a hard-line immigration bill, spearheaded by House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte.
“We want them to move the immigration bill that they committed to move,” said Rep. Scott Perry, the Freedom Caucus’s whip. “Not only move it, but let’s face it, we want them to fight for it and put the same vigor into that that they put into other things—like for instance the farm bill, tax reform.”
Objecting to the farm bill is merely a tactic, Perry continued: “It is a leverage point. It is what it is. Timeliness is an issue.”
Denham said he is not impressed with the Freedom Caucus’s counter-tactic, and he threatened one of his own: He said his group could vote down the rule for the conservative immigration bill, impeding its path to the floor. The farm bill should be left out of the discussion, he added.
“They’re two unrelated issues,” he said. “They’re going to take down every bill that comes up until they get their way? It’s a bad way to legislate.”
Still, Meadows implied he would call their bluff: “I’ve never known a moderate to bring down a rule,” he said.
He may be right to do so. At least one of the members who signed on to the discharge petition did so because he wants the Goodlatte immigration bill to come to a vote. Rep. Chris Collins said the process may lead nowhere, but he wants his constituents to know he’s fighting.
“I cannot go home and face my dairy workers having done nothing,” he said. “We’re trying to force an issue, and that issue could end up being nothing but a vote. … But we can all go home and say we did our best.”
Meanwhile, Agriculture Committee members are looking on with bemusement.
“I think the Freedom Caucus is doing what it always does: trying to make themselves relevant,” Rep. Glenn Thompson said. “Our farmers are struggling as it is. They’re going to struggle even more going forward without this farm bill passing.”
The bill has issues of its own; Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Conaway said he is working with moderate members to make changes to the food-stamp portion of the bill while also navigating the concerns of members representing sugarcane-heavy districts, worried by an amendment that would scale back their subsidies and allow lower-cost imported sugar into the market.
“There are enough votes on either end of the ideological spectrum of the House Republican Conference that I can’t lose everybody in each group,” Conaway said. “We don’t have to have everybody in each group, but we have to have some of each group.”
Absent an immigration vote, even that might be too much to ask for.