New centrist Republican idea: Use a discharge petition to force the House to vote on the DREAM Act

Eh, this is just midterm posturing by Republican congressmen from purple districts. I understand why Ryan doesn’t want to do it.

Normally the Speaker and the majority leader decide which legislation ends up on the floor for a vote. A discharge petition lets the rank-and-file do an end-around that hierarchy. If you can get a clear majority of House members to sign a petition demanding that your bill be brought to the floor, the Speaker is required to hold a vote on it. That’s typically a heavy lift since, of course, the parties are usually more or less in lockstep on the issues. The minority can’t get 218 signatories and if the majority party supports a measure, you don’t need a discharge petition to get it voted on. The Speaker will simply bring it up for a vote himself. The politics of immigration are such, though, that there *may* be enough bipartisan support to get to 218 even with Ryan and much of the GOP caucus opposed. It’s not crazy for pro-amnesty Republicans to think that most of the chamber agrees with them that it’s time to amnestize DACA enrollees.

It is a little crazy to think Trump and the Senate are going to play ball and enact this six months out from a midterm. But then, as we’ll see, enacting DREAM isn’t really the point here.

Here’s the list of Republicans who have signed the petition so far. They need 25, assuming that all 193 Democrats also sign. Right now they have 17 — not bad, although (a) Charlie Dent is stepping down soon, so they may shortly be down to 16, and (b) the last few votes are always the toughest to get since Ryan and McCarthy will be lobbying undecideds intensely not to sign on. It’s important to note also that the petition *isn’t* aimed at bringing the DREAM Act to the floor — or rather, not just the DREAM Act. Haley Byrd explains:

If the petition can garner 218 signatures, the House would proceed to a so-called Queen of the Hill rule (put forward by California Republican Jeff Denham), during which members vote on several pieces of legislation. The bill that wins the most support above the threshold to pass outright, moves on to the Senate…

Denham’s Queen of the Hill rule would allow votes on four bills: Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte’s conservative immigration bill, the Dream Act, the bipartisan USA Act put forth by Texas Republican Will Hurd and California Democrat Pete Aguilar, and a fourth bill of Paul Ryan’s choosing.

Of those options, the USA Act appears to have the best chance of passing. That bill would allow Dreamers to apply for eight-year, renewable conditional permanent resident status, protecting them from deportation and allowing them to work in the United States. DACA recipients would automatically be granted permanent resident status, and the bill would provide funds for enhanced border security, though no money for Trump’s border wall. Republican leaders fear Hurd’s bill would not win support from the president, who is in favor of a hard-line bill like Goodlatte’s.

A petition aimed squarely at passing the DREAM Act would probably run out of gas on Republican signatures before it got to 218. A petition aimed at advancing any one of four immigration bills, including Bob Goodlatte’s “more enforcement” bill, has a puncher’s chance of getting there. That’s why they’re using a “queen of the hill” format. It’s a pot sweetener for border hawks to sign on and see if they can muster more votes for their legislation from the right than amnesty fans can muster for the DREAM Act.

An obvious question: What reason is there to think McConnell will want to touch the livewire of immigration with the midterms looming? Even if the discharge petition succeeded and the DREAM Act somehow ended up with the most votes in the House, it’s dead on arrival in the Senate. The eternal conundrum for congressional Republicans on immigration is that they’re caught between their base and the rest of the country: Most of the public likes the idea of amnestizing DREAMers but populists emphatically do not, and so no matter what happens the GOP would be playing with fire. If DREAM passes, populists will start howling that they’re staying home in November. If DREAM fails, Democrats will use its failure to drive turnout among amnesty fans. That’s why Ryan, despite his own amnesty sympathies, is resisting bringing this bill to the floor himself. It’s no-win for the party.

But it’s not no-win for the Republicans who are behind the petition. Typically a discharge petition is masterminded by members of the minority party since, of course, there are few other routes for them to bring their own legislation to the floor. In this case it’s members of the majority party who are behind it — specifically, GOP Reps. Will Hurd, Jeff Denham, and Carlos Curbelo. Not coincidentally, all three represent districts that are purple at best. Hurd’s Texas district tilts ever so slightly Republican, Denham’s California home base is dead even between the parties, and Curbelo’s leans six points Democratic. In each district, Latinos are either a significant minority, a plurality, or a clear majority of the population. (In Curbelo’s district, they make up nearly 70 percent.) Every Republican in Congress has their electoral work cut out for them in distinguishing themselves from Trump, or at least from the things about Trump that voters dislike. These guys, though, have their work *really* cut out for them given the demographic realities of their districts. The need something they can point to as smoking-gun proof that they’re not “Trump Republicans.” The obvious solution: Do something splashy to try to advance amnesty.

Curbelo et al. know DREAM isn’t going to pass the Senate right now if their discharge petition ploy works in the House. But even if the petition fails in the House, which it probably will, Curbelo et al. can tell constituents that they fought the good fight. If the petition succeeds and Goodlatte’s more hardline bill passes instead of the DREAM Act, that’s not a total loss either. Goodlatte’s plan allows for temporary renewable legal status for DREAMers, after all, along with the beefier enforcement measures it provides. Hurd, Denham, and Curbelo could claim that they forced a vote on a bill that would give DREAMers the right to remain in the U.S. at least for the next three years as a matter of federal law. That’s not the sort of solution amnesty fans are hoping for (a path to citizenship is), but it might placate enough voters to help them survive the midterms. Here’s Curbelo talking about the discharge petition on CNN this morning.