At a closed-door meeting on Wednesday, House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., urged House Republicans to resist the urge to sign on to a discharge petition to force the House to vote on contentious immigration legislation.
"I think it's futile to bring a discharge through which would guarantee nothing goes into law," Ryan told reporters this week, outlining his message to the rank-and-file. "The point I keep making is if we're going to advance immigration legislation, let's advance immigration legislation that could get a presidential signature. Not one that would get a presidential veto. That's the point we keep trying to make."
Despite those efforts, two Republicans — Rep. John Katko of New York and Dave Trott of Michigan — signed on to the petition in a move that highlighted both the weakening political muscle of a lame duck speaker, and just how eager a growing number of rank-and-file Republicans are to have an immigration debate.
GOP leaders' immigration problems are compounded by a competing bloc of conservatives that are threatening passage of the farm bill this week unless they extract concessions to vote on a hard-line immigration bill popular among the party's base.
The discharge petition is a little used and rarely successful legislative gambit in which lawmakers can force a vote in the House if they get 218 signatures. Last week, GOP Rep. Carlos Curbelo of Florida introduced a discharge petition that, if successful, would trigger votes on four competing immigration measures that run the ideological spectrum from bipartisan to hard-line immigration proposals.
Curbelo is one of the House GOP's most vulnerable incumbents, running for re-election in a district carried by Democrat Hillary Clinton in the 2016 White House race. He supports bipartisan efforts on immigration that would include a path to citizenship for certain people, and he has been a harsh critic of President Trump's hard-line immigration stances and rhetoric.
So far, 20 Republicans — mostly moderates in competitive districts — have signed on and only five more signatures could clinch it, assuming all 193 House Democrats join them. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Thursday that was a safe bet. "Ninety-nine percent of our members will be signing on," she told reporters, calling the discharge petition fight "something very beautiful."
The maneuver is challenging Ryan and McCarthy's leadership. The two met privately with President Trump this week at the White House in an effort to come up with a unified strategy for a path forward on immigration that doesn't expose the sharp divides within the GOP on the issue.
Ryan told reporters the purpose of the meeting was to "advance a strategy that addresses the issues that our members have, the concerns they have, but doing it in a way where we actually have a process that can get a presidential signature, and not a presidential veto."
However, it's not clear the White House shares their concerns. President Trump and senior administration officials including chief of staff John Kelly have never let up on their frustration with congressional inaction on immigration. The prospect of a forced showdown on the House floor may not be as unappealing on the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue.
"We have the worst laws anywhere in the world for illegal immigration," Trump vented Wednesday at an immigration event at the White House. "There's no place in the world that has laws like we do."
The president has not weighed in on the discharge petition, but White House press secretary Sarah Sanders was given an opportunity to give the speaker some rhetorical back up on Thursday when asked if the president supports the petition, and she did not echo Ryan's argument.
"The president definitely supports border security as he's laid out multiple times and again talked about some yesterday," she said, "He would like to see the border secured, he would like to see the loopholes closed. Our priorities have not changed in the immigration conversation at all."
The immigration pressure in the House is not coming just from moderates and Democrats. Many conservatives, including those in the House Freedom Caucus, likewise want to have an immigration debate too, but they're approaching it from a different negotiating tactic that is also squeezing GOP leaders.
A bloc of conservatives, including Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., are threatening to hold up passage of a farm bill if they don't extract an agreement to vote on conservative immigration legislation by Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va. His proposal is opposed by Democrats and would require passage on the strength of GOP votes alone — a level of support that GOP leaders insist the Goodlatte bill does not have on the House floor.
The competing pressure from the moderate and conservative wings alike is fueling expectations that the House will have to take some kind of action on immigration, whether GOP leaders like it or not. Pelosi told reporters Ryan would be better served by allowing votes on legislation outlined in the discharge petition. "The speaker should maintain control of the floor by just bringing the bill up," she said.
Discharge petitions are governed by a set of procedural rules that dictate that after 218 signatures are reached, a mandatory seven-legislative-day layover must occur and then a vote can only happen on the second or fourth Monday of the month. If so, the House could find itself in an immigration debate with no clear endgame in the thick of primary season and a midterm election year in which the GOP majority is at stake — exactly the scenario Ryan is trying to avoid.