WASHINGTON — Republican leaders temporarily yanked a Trump-backed immigration bill from the House floor just hours before lawmakers were supposed to vote on it, a surprise move that seemed unlikely to improve its prospects for passage.
The last-minute decision came at nearly the same moment the House killed another more conservative immigration bill – also supported by Trump and GOP leaders – by a vote of 193-to-231. Forty-one Republicans joined all the Democrats to defeat that bill, which would have funded President Trump’s border wall, slashed legal immigration, and provided temporary legal status to some undocumented immigrants.
The dual actions showcased how divisive and perilous the immigration issue is for the GOP, with Republican leaders unable to bridge a chasm between moderates and conservatives despite intense political pressure to act.
The postponed immigration bill, crafted by House Speaker Paul Ryan, will now come up for a vote next week. The delay came after some GOP lawmakers demanded more time to review the 299-page bill, which would dramatically revamp immigration policy.
If Ryan's bill fails next week, it will be a blow to his leadership as he tries to keep an already fractious caucus together and prepares for his own retirement at the end of this Congress. It will also highlight Republican infighting on a major election issue just five months before voters head to the polls.
The fresh chaos in the House came near the end of a tumultuous week that began with an uproar over President Trump's "zero tolerance" policy that led to immigrant children being separated from their parents at the border – sparking a parallel and equally heated immigration debate.
The speaker crafted his immigration measure after weeks of tense negotiations between members of the ultra-conservative House Freedom Caucus, which has embraced Trump's hardline immigration policies, and moderate Republicans from diverse districts who want to protect undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children.
Ryan's bill includes elements to appease both factions. And some Republicans said they hoped the extra day would help them rescue the measure bill from near-certain defeat.
“I’d rather wait a day and pass it than rush it and not pass it," said Rep. Chris Collins, R-N.Y., who supports the Ryan measure.
Rep. Carlos Curbelo, R-Fla., a moderate who co-sponsored the legislation, said it was understandable that lawmakers needed more time to understand a sweeping bill that was just unveiled on Tuesday and that included an embarrassing drafting error that required an 11th-hour fix.
"The more members understand this bill, the more comfortable they will become with it," Curbelo said.
But others said time was not the problem.
"I’m a big fat no, capital letters," said Rep. Lou Barletta, R-Penn. He said he'd use the additional hours to "encourage other people to vote no."
Barletta and other House Republicans said GOP leaders should have focused their energy on building support for the more hawkish proposal, which failed by less than 20 votes, instead of crafting a second piece of legislation.
Trump backed both bills, although he was tepid and uneven in his support of the Ryan measure. On Thursday morning, the president injected another wrinkle when he suggested in a tweet that the two House immigration votes were a waste of time because neither measure could pass the Senate — a statement that further undercut the Ryan bill, instead of serving as a persuasive closing argument.
Trump has made it clear he wants to put his hardline immigration views front-and-center in the 2018 elections, with his administration's "zero tolerance" policy of prosecuting families who come across the border illegally as a case in point. The focus on immigration could rev up the GOP's conservative base, while alienating moderates and independents.
Thursday's immigration debate in the House was spurred by another divisive Trump action. Last fall, the president nixed an Obama-era program that provided legal status and work permits to the so-called "Dreamers," the undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children. That program is known as DACA, for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.
Democrats and some Republicans believe those immigrants, now young adults, should be given a chance at U.S. citizenship – not threatened with deportation. In the House, they teamed up to try to force a floor vote on a bipartisan immigration bill that GOP leaders, and the White House, staunchly opposed.
Ryan preempted that rebellion earlier this month by scheduling this week's debate on the two competing bills, both more palatable to Trump and other conservatives.
Under Ryan's bill, an estimated 1.8 million "Dreamers" would be able to apply for “nonimmigrant status”– essentially a conditional visa – if they meet certain conditions. If the "Dreamers" win that nonimmigrant status, then after six years, they would be able to apply for a green card, which will set them on the path to eventual citizenship.
The Ryan bill would also leave in place current provisions that allow adult U.S. citizens to apply for green cards for their parents; that means once the "Dreamers" become citizens, they could petition for their parents to gain that permanent legal status as well.
To appease conservatives, the Ryan measure would end a diversity lottery program and limit family-based immigration. The visas from those two programs would be used for the "Dreamers" and then evaporate. The bill also includes more than $23 billion in funding for Trump's proposed border wall and other beefed up enforcement measures.
Overall, the Ryan proposal adheres closely to the "four pillars" that Trump has demanded as part of any immigration deal. But it was clear Thursday the bill did not have enough support to pass, even after a final slap-dash lobbying push from the White House.
Late Thursday afternoon, House Republicans were called to a basement room in the Capitol for a hastily scheduled meeting to boost support for the bill. Rep. Mark Amodei, R-Nev, said one of the bill's co-sponsors went through the bill section by section, as his colleagues munched on make-your-own sandwiches. Amodei left early, declining to say how he would vote.
Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., chairman of the House Freedom Caucus, said conservatives were unhappy with several items, citing the inclusion of citizenship for the parents of "Dreamers" and the omission of a mandatory "e-verify" program requiring employees to check employees legal status.
Meadows said he didn't think GOP leaders would use the extra day to tweak the bill and win them over. Meanwhile, some moderates expressed concern with other elements of the bill. With Democrats unified against the bill, Ryan had little room for defections.
At a news conference before the first House vote, the speaker seemed resigned to watching both bills die.
"We’re advancing the cause even if something doesn’t necessarily pass," Ryan told reporters Thursday morning. "We’re putting ideas to the table ... even if it may not result in law."