Ass covering is the sine qua non of politics. So it is not surprising that vulnerable Republican Congressmen in blue districts have gotten off their asses before the mid-term elections to make a last ditch attempt to bypass their hardline colleagues and pass a bill legalizing Dreamers, immigrants brought here as children without proper authorization. But what is surprising is that instead of helping them, retiring House Speaker Paul Ryan, who promised Dreamers last year that he would do everything in his power to"find a way to make sure" they can "get right with the law," is more interested in covering President Trump's ass.
Trump last year suspended DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), the Obama-era program that gave a temporary reprieve from deportation to qualified Dreamers, and told Congress to pass legislation if it wanted protections for Dreamers. That wouldn't have been so terrible if he hadn't then also worked with immigration hardliners to undermine Congress by demanding all kinds of poison pills—including a 40 percent cut in legal immigration—in exchange. The DACA protections expired in March and Dreamers would have been up for mass deportations had courts not intervened and forced the administration to maintain the program for now.
The Supreme Court may eventually agree to hear the case if Congress continues to dither, but in the meantime Republicans like Rep. Jeff Denham from California and Rep. Carlos Curbelo of Florida, who are hanging by a thread in their seats, have to fight midterm elections in November.
Denham, an Air Force veteran who endorsed Trump in 2016 and has since voted with the president 97 percent of the time, including funding the wall, is particularly vulnerable. He won this Central Valley district, where Latinos are over 40 percent of the population, by a narrow 3 percentage points in 2016—and is now facing massive pushback. Papier-mache effigies and "Dump Denham" signs follow him everywhere in this Republican leaning district that is now considered a toss up.
Meanwhile, Curbelo, who is seeking a third term in a district that Hillary Clinton won by 16 points, is even more vulnerable even though the Democrat he will face in November is a virtual unknown.
So the duo has led a rebellion in the House where immigration hardliners have killed all sensible immigration reform for 12 years if it contained even the whiff of so-called amnesty, even though majorities in the House and Senate were ready to pass them—and President Bush and Obama were ready pen in hand to sign them—creating the unfortunate situation now.
They are using a rare parliamentary maneuver called the discharge petition to get four of the many DACA bills currently trapped in committee released for an up or down floor vote against the wishes of the House leadership that has shown no interest in controlling the hardliners. The bill that gets the maximum number of votes—called the Queen of the Hill bill—is considered to have passed the House and is sent to the Senate. This maneuver has been used only 25 times since 1935, the last time in 2015 to revive the Ex-Im Bank, America's enduring monument to crony capitalism, after its charter expired. If 218 lawmakers sign the discharge petition, that'll clear the way for a floor vote. There is a very good chance that the DACA bill that'll go forward from among the four will be one that hands the president money for some enforcement in exchange for legalizing 1.5 million or so Dreamers with an eventual path to citizenship. Among the other bills that would be up for a vote would include one that Speaker Ryan would get to pick (which, heaven forbid, would force him to actually take a position!), and another rather draconian bill favored by Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Virginia, that would only offer about 700,000 DACA beneficiaries—not all Dreamers—a three-year renewable nonimmigrant visa in exchange for funding for a wall, enhanced enforcement and cuts in legal immigration—in other words a nativist version of comprehensive immigration reform.
But 218 votes seemed like a tall order for a while especially since the House currently has only 428 as opposed to 435 members when it is at full strength. However, everything changed a few weeks ago when Denham and Curbelo teamed up initially with 190 Democrats (all but three of the 193) and 23 Republicans to scrape together 213 votes for the discharge petition. Then last week, they got another two Democrats (who had been waffling because they did not want to set up a bill that might fund a border wall that would run right through their districts) for a grand total of 215 votes.
There are plenty of Republicans who can make up the three-vote deficit (even if the last Democratic holdout does not hop on board) to reach the 218 threshold. These include Rep. Darrel Issa of California who has decided to retire—and Rep. Dan Donovan of New York, Rep. Don Bacon of Nebraska and Rep. Frank LoBiondo of New Jersey—all of whom are middle-of-the-roaders who, along with 79 percent of Americans—and 66 percent of Republicans, support a pathway to citizenship for Dreamers.
Hence, a panicked Ryan pleaded with the discharge petition backers to hold off until he huddled with House Republicans on Thursday to see if he could rally enough of them around a bill that the president would sign. But the two-hour confab seemed to have brought the hopelessly divided Republicans no closer to a consensus because the notion of restricting legal immigration is deeply unpopular with many of them. And the POTUS, who after initially saying he'd sign anything Congress sent his way to legalize Dreamers, pulled a Trump Tower-sized switcheroo and declared that he won't sign anything that doesn't cut family-based immigration and end the diversity visa lottery program along with other assaults on legal immigration. And if the logjam doesn't break today, Dunham and Curbelo are expected to go ahead and obtain the remaining signatures in the next 36 hours to move the petition forward. This will allow them to give the requisite notice to hold the petition vote on June 25.
This is Ryan's nightmare scenario that he has done everything to avert. Indeed, by House rules, discharge petitions can only be held on the second and fourth Mondays of every month. So he reconstituted the House calendar this week so that the House met not today, June 11, but Friday so that petition backers would get only one shot this month to move their bid forward.
But why is Ryan going to such great lengths to thwart a cause that he is openly sympathetic to?
It is true that even if a Dreamer bill advances through the House, it will face an uphill battle in the Senate where the Senate Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has, like Ryan, decided to take a stance against it. But if the House, that has distinguished itself by its decade-plus hostility to humane and pro-growth immigration policies that Reason has long championed, manages to push this bill through, McConnell's opposition will become far less sustainable. It will put moderate Republicans in the Senate on the spot and they might well demand a vote, which, if the bill gets, it will pass.
If Trump vetoes the bill at that stage, he will further energize Democrats to the polls in November. It could well undo the recent uptick in his approval ratings thanks to the improving economy (which his trade wars with friends and foes alike are already in the process of undoing). Hence, Ryan would rather help Trump cover his ass now than put Republican control of the House in even greater jeopardy.
But it is terribly myopic to set the policy of a party based on the whims of a capricious president.
Ryan, no doubt partly because of the difficulty of working with the president, is retiring at the end of the year. If there were ever a good time to put principle above party and support the newly woke Denham and Curbelo in finally doing the right thing, this would be it. This is especially the case given that in the long run this would help take the GOP back from nativists and restore its pro-immigrant bona fides, giving it a fighting chance to win in a rapidly diversifying America.
That he does not have the backbone to do so suggests that it is no tragedy he is leaving.