WASHINGTON — Republican leaders on Thursday abruptly postponed a vote on their consensus immigration bill with little expectation they could muscle it through the House despite the growing uproar over separating migrant families at the border.
A fractious GOP conference and President Donald Trump’s equivocations hamstrung leadership as they tried to rally support for their Republican-only bills. The House rejected a conservative hard-line measure 231-193 on Thursday and leaders delayed a vote on the consensus measure until next week.
The two immigration bills sought to respond to a pair of brewing crises precipitated by Trump — his decision to separate migrant children from their families at the southwest border and his cancellation of a program protecting young undocumented immigrants from deportation.
But the president left Republicans confused on his preference, and his Thursday morning tweet signaled to House lawmakers that they need not bother passing anything as their bills stood no chance in the narrowly divided Senate.
In a last-ditch effort, Trump called Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Virginia, late Thursday and said he backed the consensus bill. Goodlatte delivered the president’s message in a closed-door GOP meeting, but it did little to persuade holdouts.
“I appreciate the president’s opinion and his input … to me, we voted today on a bill that I thought was more indicative of where the people are and what the president originally ran on,” said Rep. Scott Perry, R-Pennsylvania, as he emerged from the session.
The fact that the bill had the White House’s seal of approval has not been enough to convince conservative Republicans who believe that it hands “amnesty” to dreamers without doing enough to seal the southwest border and otherwise deter future illegal immigration. Days of reports about children torn from their parents, including news Thursday that the Pentagon is preparing to house as many as 20,000 migrants on military bases, has largely failed to change the internal dynamics.
A last-ditch closed-door GOP conference meeting Thursday evening was aimed at assuaging House members who wanted to better understand what the bill does before voting on it. Multiple senior Republican aides said they did not expect it to sway enough votes to pass.
Several hard-liners said Thursday there was nothing leaders could do to convince them to vote for the compromise bill. “I’m a big fat ‘no,’ capital letters,” said Rep. Lou Barletta, R-Pennsylvania. “It’s amnesty, chain migration, and there’s no guarantee that the wall will be built.”
Republicans’ trip into another immigration cul-de-sac came in a midterm election year when most of the party’s top strategists have counseled a focus on a booming economy, tax cuts and “kitchen table” issues more generally.
They have not had the ear of the president, who has repeatedly acted to please his base of highly conservative voters — including by ending the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program last year and, in April, implementing a “zero tolerance” border policy that led to the separations of migrant families.
The lack of action has grated on a cadre of Republican moderates, who moved last months to force votes on several immigration bills — including bipartisan measures that would easily pass with mostly Democratic support. But GOP leaders, who feared a conservative political backlash if a Republican House advanced such legislation, undertook a furious push to stymie the moderates.
It partially succeeded: The moderates succeeded only in securing the promise of a vote on compromise legislation alongside the more conservative bill, and since then, their quest to protect the dreamers has been overshadowed by the family separations crisis.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and Trump himself all traveled to Capitol Hill this week asking Congress to take action to address the brewing border crisis while also delivering other Trump administration immigration priorities.
The compromise legislation would provide dreamers a pathway to citizenship, imposed limits on legal immigration and provided $25 billion for Trump’s border wall. The bill also would keep migrant families together at the border in detention centers.
But many GOP lawmakers and aides saw the lobbying effort as abortive and perplexing, culminating in a Trump tweet Thursday morning complaining that the Senate would reject anything the House passed, thus dampening House members’ enthusiasm for taking a tough vote.
The compromise measure would provide $25 billion for Trump’s long-sought border wall, offer a pathway to citizenship to young undocumented immigrants and keep migrant families together.
A competing, hard-line bill would not guarantee dreamers a path to permanent legal residency and includes controversial enforcement measures such as the mandatory use of a worker verification program.
Neither bill was negotiated with Democrats or was expected to garner any Democratic votes. The separations crisis has prompted Democrats to dig in against the Republican immigration efforts barring a complete reversal of Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy.
“Democrats are dedicated to securing our border, but we don’t think putting children in cages is the way to do it,” Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-California, said Thursday. “This is outside the circle of human behavior.”
Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Massachusetts, said the GOP’s inability to find consensus inside its ranks would remain a persistent barrier to action on immigration – at least, he said, until Democrats win congressional majorities.
“They’re bringing legislation to the floor that was negotiated exclusively between their right wing and their extreme right wing,” he said. “They’re polarizing this issue in such a way that it’s going to be more and more difficult to actually fix things.”
In the first vote Thursday, the House rejected the hard-line measure on a 231-193 vote. As the vote occurred on a chaotic day on Capitol Hill, word circulated that the second vote would be postponed.
Later in the afternoon, GOP lawmakers filed into a basement conference room to get another update on the legislation and heard another presidential pep talk – indirectly, through House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Virginia, who told colleagues that he had spoken to Trump.
“He made it very clear that he supports the second bill and wants the House to pass it,” Goodlatte told reporters afterward.
At a late-morning news conference, House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, did not concede defeat but repeatedly referenced the prospect of both bills failing and characterized scheduled votes Thursday afternoon as “a legitimate exercise.”
“I think we’re advancing the cause even if something doesn’t pass,” Ryan said. “I think these are the seeds that are going to be planted for an ultimate solution.”
The likelihood of defeat unleashed frustrations across Capitol Hill this week – including a heated floor argument Wednesday night between Ryan and Rep. Mark Meadows, R-North Carolina, a key conservative leader, who accused GOP leaders of reneging on negotiations.
But most of the frustrations were reserved for Trump — who, in the eyes of many Republicans, created a problem, demanded Congress solve it, then actively undermined his party’s efforts to do so.
The irritations started coming to a head Tuesday, when Trump visited House Republicans on Capitol Hill. The visit was meant to urge them to vote for immigration legislation, but Trump failed to send a strong message that he wanted a particular bill passed, attendees said, and spent much of his time riffing on other subjects — and delivering a pointed dig at Rep. Mark Sanford, R-South Carolina, a Trump critic who lost his primary election last week.
“I think the president needs to understand that that may have actually lost him votes in that meeting,” said Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho. “The reason he was there was to emphasize that he had our backs, and I think a different message was sent.”
Then, in the Thursday morning tweet, Trump said, “What is the purpose of the House doing good immigration bills when you need 9 votes by Democrats in the Senate, and the Dems are only looking to Obstruct (which they feel is good for them in the Mid-Terms)?”
That, according to GOP aides, deflated their effort to build support for the bills by signaling to wavering lawmakers that there is little reason for lawmakers to risk a conservative backlash by voting for the more moderate alternative.
“He knows exactly what he’s doing,” said Rep. Ryan Costello, R-Pennsylvania, a suburban moderate who is leaving the House in January. “We’re going to blame Democrats and at the same time give cover to people who may not want to vote for the compromise bill.”
The Washington Post’s Karoun Demirjian, Paul Kane, Sean Sullivan and Erica Werner contributed to this report.