House Republican leaders brought opposing GOP factions into a closed-door meeting Friday to consider the outline of a compromise on immigration, as they try frantically to resolve an issue that has divided the party for decades.
Party leadership is under mounting pressure from rebellious GOP moderates to produce an immigration bill by a Tuesday deadline and set a date for a vote.
Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif., a leader of the moderates, headed into the midday meeting with an open mind, saying his faction had compromised a lot. "Now that we've got an outline on paper, we've got specific issues we can discuss and see if we can come together," he said.
Denham said the top priority for moderates remains the same as from beginning: to produce a "permanent" way to protect the young immigrant "Dreamers" — those who have been living in the U.S. illegally since childhood — from deportation and allow them eventually to apply for citizenship.
Lawmakers said after the meeting they were making progress but it was unlikely they could produce legislation by Tuesday.
"There's no agreement right now," said Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., the GOP Whip, as he exited the meeting.
Without an agreement with conservatives and party leaders, the centrists warn they will have enough signatures by Tuesday on a petition to force House votes later this month on bills for the young immigrants. Many conservatives have opposed a pathway to citizenship, and leaders say the votes, which would surely draw Democratic support, would be divisive and damage the party's electoral prospects among GOP voters in November.
"It has forced people to the table," one of the moderates, Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., said of the petition. "Does the fact that we've forced people to the table guarantee that we will have a resolution? No."
On Thursday, it appeared that a tentative deal with conservatives was being discussed to help the young immigrants stay in the U.S. legally. Denham said a member of the conservative Freedom Caucus put an offer on the table that the moderates accepted. But conservatives said later that no agreement had been reached, underscoring how difficult it is for the GOP to resolve the issue.
The outline reviewed Friday contains two options for the Dreamers. One would be a new visa category that Denham said was made by conservatives. It combines permits for the Dreamers with those for immigrants who now use other programs, including the diversity lottery and family visas. The new visa would let the Dreamers remain in the country for eight years. The other option would be a more traditional path for them to gain visas and eventually apply for citizenship.
The new outline, which also includes border security funds and other immigration measures, arrived a day after House Speaker Paul Ryan said leaders would begin crafting a new bill.
The flurry underscored the escalating pressure Republicans face to address immigration, an issue pitting centrists representing Hispanic and moderate voters against conservatives with deep-red constituents sympathetic to President Donald Trump's anti-immigrant outbursts. Painfully aware of those divisions, leaders had seemed happy to sidestep the issue until the moderates' rebellion forced their hand.
Another moderate leader, Rep. Carlos Curbelo, R-Fla., said they need two more GOP signatures on the petition that could force the votes, assuming all Democrats sign. If they get them by next Tuesday, the House would be on track to have those roll calls on June 25. Though Curbelo said Thursday that deadline could slip to July if progress is being made.
Details on the new visa system remain unclear, and lawmakers said they needed to see the details in writing. There's uncertainty over what would happen after the end of the eight-year visa program, but Denham said participants have characterized the proposal as a bridge to the legal immigration system — which suggests a pathway to remaining in the U.S. permanently.
Conservatives have been adamant about not providing a "special" process carving out a unique way for Dreamers to gain legal status, and some of them bristled at Denham's narrower description.
The moderates would force votes on bills ranging from liberal plans offering citizenship to Dreamers to a conservative proposal curbing legal immigration. GOP leaders and conservatives say the likely result would be left-leaning legislation that would never clear the Senate or get Trump's signature. They also say it would antagonize conservative voters, jeopardizing GOP turnout in November elections where control of the House is at stake.
In exchange for providing possible citizenship for Dreamers, Trump wants full financing for his wall with Mexico. He's also wanted to end a lottery that distributes about 50,000 visas annually to countries with few U.S. immigrants and to limit the relatives legal immigrants can bring to this country.
Democrats and many moderate Republicans have opposed curbs in legal immigration. Such a plan would seem to have no chance in the Senate, where Democrats have enough votes to block it.
Rep. Mark Walker, R-N.C., said conservatives have discussed providing a pathway to citizenship to Dreamers in exchange for funding for the proposed border wall, ending the visa lottery and limiting the relatives immigrants can bring into the country. Walker said the more Dreamers given an opportunity for citizenship, the tighter curbs on family-based migration would be.
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