Kevin McCarthy has a problem on his hands.
After nine months of fruitless negotiations and failed promises, moderate Republican Congress members have given McCarthy, the House majority leader, and House Speaker Paul Ryan a Tuesday deadline to strike a deal or face an embarrassing vote that would show a majority of the House of Representatives supporting the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which was created by President Obama’s executive action to grant legal protections for hundreds of thousands of people who illegally came to the country as children.
The rare maneuver—known on Capitol Hill as a “discharge petition”—allows 218 members of Congress to force an issue to the floor, undermining Ryan and McCarthy, whose power lies in setting the agenda.
The prospect is particularly challenging for McCarthy, who wants to take the gavel after Ryan retires. Several of his fellow California Republican members are up for reelection in some of the toughest races this year, and they think the immigration move is good policy and politics, helping them emphasize their independence from a nativist president. But many of the conservatives who would elect him speaker are the same Congress members who hate DACA so much that they threatened the entire funding of the Homeland Security Department in 2015 to try to prevent it from being implemented.
In September, the Trump administration announced that it would rescind the program, giving Congress a March 5 deadline to pass legislation codifying it into law. That deadline came and went without action, frustrating Democrats and moderate Republicans who want to save DACA, while the two sides continue to battle in court.
GOP Rep. Jeff Denham—who, like McCarthy, represents California’s Central Valley—is leading the effort to protect the program as he faces an especially tough reelection fight. On Thursday, Denham said that he is “quite confident” that he and other members have the 218 votes necessary to force a vote on four immigration bills.
“We’ve been given promises for quite some time that we were going to have a vote,” he said. “But we’re not willing to sit back and wait and see how politics plays out. We’re going to get this done.”
In a press conference, Ryan called a discharge petition backed by Democrats and around 25 Republicans “pointless,” since none of the bills offered would pass the Senate and be signed by the president. But it’s not clear anything else would pass either.
Earlier this year, the White House backed a Senate bill that provided a pathway to citizenship for "Dreamers" and $25 billion for a wall on the southern border, brought an end the diversity visa lottery, and curtailed family-based legal immigration in order to combat “chain migration.” The bill built on those principles overwhelmingly failed. But on Thursday, Ryan said the “four pillars” of the president’s plan were a “really good place to rally around.”
While Congress members proclaimed that the current negotiations were making progress, a brief moment off the House floor appeared to suggest otherwise. Denham told reporters that moderates had agreed to accept billions of dollars in border-security measures for the wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, while conservatives offered a new visa that would let them stay in the country. When asked if conservatives had offered such a deal, Rep. Jim Jordan wouldn’t confirm.
“There can’t be any type of special, unique, distinct pathway to citizenship for the DACA population,” he said. “We’re just having discussions about what makes sense and what’s consistent with the mandate of the 2016 election.”
Ryan and McCarthy will soon see if they can bring the two sides together. So far, Republicans on both ends of the ideological spectrum have praised McCarthy for hearing them out this week.
The leader of the hard-Right House Freedom Caucus, Rep. Mark Meadows, said McCarthy has handled a difficult situation “with great finesse.”
“It puts him in a tough spot where he’s got his own delegation encouraging him to do something a lot more moderate than perhaps the consensus of the conference,” said Meadows. “And yet, I can’t complain that he hasn’t given me a fair shake in all of the debate.”
Besides Denham, there are at least six competitive seats held by California Republicans, including Reps. David Valadao and Dana Rohrabacher. They have made different political bets; Valadao has supported DACA but Rohrabacher has not.
“Those who are for amnesty have not survived,” said Rohrabacher of Republicans. “Those who are opposed to amnesty have survived.”
But they both agree their fellow Californian is up to the job.
“Something needed to be done,” Valadao said. “And I think he’s doing his best to balance as much as possible.”
“Kevin is the king of the compromise,” Rohrabacher added.