WASHINGTON — A sweeping House GOP immigration overhaul teetered on the brink of collapse Thursday as lawmakers struggled to move past an issue that has become politically fraught amid the dire images of families being separated at the border.
President Donald Trump’s sudden executive action over the border crisis stemmed some of the urgency for Congress to act. But House GOP leaders still were pulling out the stops to bring reluctant Republicans on board in hopes of resolving broader immigration issues ahead of the November midterm election.
Passage of the bill was always a long shot, but failure may now come at a steeper price as Republicans — and Trump — have raised expectations that, as the party in control of Congress and the White House, they can fix the nation’s long-standing immigration problems.
“This is a bill that has consensus. This is a bill that the president supports. It’s a bill that could become law,” said House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif.
The outcome remains uncertain despite a frenzied effort to pull in the final votes. House Speaker Paul Ryan took two dozen wavering lawmakers to the White House so Trump could cajole them into supporting the bill. Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen trekked to the Capitol to meet privately with groups of GOP lawmakers. Ahead of voting Thursday, the results of the outreach were mixed.
“We have a chance,” said Rep. Carlos Curbelo, R-Fla. “It won’t be easy.”
One Republican, Rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina, announced he would support the legislation after meeting with Trump, who he said was persuasive. Another, Rep. Lou Barletta, who is running for Senate in Pennsylvania, told Trump at the meeting he would have to remain a no vote.
“I didn’t want my name attached to that,” he said of the bill he decried as amnesty for immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally.
The House GOP compromise bill is the product of hard-fought negotiations between the conservative and moderate factions that dragged on for several weeks. The measure is unlikely to pick up much, if any, Democratic support.
The House will also vote on a more hard-line immigration proposal favored by conservatives. It is expected to fail.
The nearly 300-page compromise measure creates a path way to citizenship for the young immigrants known as Dreamers, who have been living in the U.S. illegally since childhood. It provides $25 billion Trump wants for his promised border wall from Mexico. And it revises the longstanding preference for family visas in favor of a merit system based on education level and work skills.
When the crisis of family separations erupted at the border, GOP leaders revised the bill to bolster a provision requiring parents and children to be held together in custody. It did so by eliminating the 20-day cap on holding minors and allowing indefinite detentions.
Even though Trump has acted unilaterally to stem the family separations, lawmakers still prefer a legislative fix. The administration is not ending its “zero tolerance” approach to border prosecutions. If the new policy is rejected by the courts, which the administration acknowledges is a possibility, the debate could move back to square one.
Senate Republicans, fearing Trump’s action will not withstand a legal challenge and eager to go on record opposing the administration’s policy, have unveiled their own legislation to keep detained immigrant families together.
Back in the House, despite Trump’s endorsement of the compromise bill, Ryan’s leadership team has been struggling to ensure passage on its own. They have encountered persistent GOP divisions that have long prevented Republicans from tackling a broad immigration bill.
New problems erupted late Wednesday, on the eve of voting, when a key negotiator of the compromise, Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., a leader of the conservative Freedom Caucus, engaged in lively conversation with Ryan on the House floor. Meadows said he was now opposing the bill.
“Let me put it this way: The compromise bill is not ready for prime time, and hopefully we’ll be able to make it ready for prime time,” Meadows said. When a reporter said he yelled at Ryan, Meadows replied, “Oh, no, I was passionate. I was not yelling.”
Moderate Republicans forced the immigration debate to the fore by threatening to use a rare procedure to demand a vote. Led by Curbelo and Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif., many are from states with large populations of young “Dreamer” immigrants who now face deportation threats under Trump’s decision to end the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. A federal court challenge has kept the DACA program running for now.
Ryan wanted to prevent moderates from being able to force a vote and launched weeks of negotiations to develop the compromise package with Meadows and conservatives.
Trump, who remained on the sidelines for much of the debate, almost upended the process late last week by saying he would not back the compromise bill. GOP aides later said he had been confused. Trump quickly reversed course to back the bill and swooped into the Capitol for a late huddle Tuesday with Republicans.
But even Trump’s visit left lawmakers uncertain because he said he supported the compromise bill as well as a rival conservative measure that is also coming for a vote Thursday. That left leaders scrambling Wednesday to ensure rank-and file lawmakers that Trump would stick with them. Many Republicans fear a backlash from the Republican base if they vote for the legislation and Trump turns against it.
Even if the House approves the bill, passage in the Senate appears unlikely. Republican senators are working on a narrower bill that focuses only on the crisis of family separations at the border.
Associated Press writers Alan Fram and Kevin Freking contributed to this report.