Calif. Republican and allies want renewed immigration fight

FILE - In this July 23, 2013 file photo, Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif., testifies at a hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington. Denham has gathered nearly 50 GOP co-sponsors on an effort to hold votes on four immigration bills. Democratic aides say virtually every Democrat will sign on as co-sponsors, but there would be no requirement for the vote to occur. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File) –The Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — A quiz: If a bipartisan majority of House members wants votes on a subject that gets sky-high public support, why do they seem likely to fail? And why are they pushing it regardless?

Here’s some help: It’s the politically loaded issue of helping “Dreamer” immigrants. And it’s an election year.

Around 50 Republicans and nearly all 193 Democrats have rallied behind an effort to hold those votes, a drive led by a GOP lawmaker from a central California district where around 4 in 10 residents are Hispanic. There would be four alternatives: A conservative bill restricting legal immigration, a liberal one helping Dreamers achieve citizenship, any bill of House Speaker Paul Ryan’s choosing and a bipartisan compromise.

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“The American public is demanding a vote,” the ringleader, Rep. Jeff Denham, said Wednesday, a nod to polls showing 80 percent support for helping Dreamers. “And we’re demanding it too.”

Ryan, who’s already said he opposes the proposal, is unlikely to allow the votes to even happen, citing a desire to push only legislation President Donald Trump would sign. Facing prospects of losing control of the House, GOP leaders have little interest in highlighting party division.

The fight demonstrates some Republicans’ persistent discomfort with Trump’s hard-line immigration stance and the party that has embraced it. With high-level, bipartisan talks about legislation for the “Dreamers” dead, some Republicans are now focused on protecting themselves from political fallout still to come.

The push for a new round of votes is popular in the districts of Denham and his GOP supporters, many of whom represent areas with high Hispanic populations, industries that rely heavily on immigrants like agriculture or moderate suburban voters. Many of them believe a congressional stalemate over immigrants will cost them in November, a sentiment happily shared by Democrats who broadly back a fix for the immigrants whose protection from deportation under an Obama-era program has expired.

If the roll calls were held, many believe the winner would be the bipartisan plan, which would help many young Dreamers stay in the U.S. permanently but not offer them citizenship. It would strengthen border security but provide none of the $25 billion President Donald Trump has wanted to build his border wall with Mexico.

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That compromise, by Reps. Will Hurd, R-Texas, and Pete Aguilar, D-Calif., is backed by at least 30 Republicans with moderate views on immigration and most Democrats. But it’s not a preferred outcome for the GOP.

Helping immigrants here illegally and defying Trump would alienate the party’s staunch conservative voters, threatening turnout, contributions and campaign volunteers. And with fewer than 1 in 4 House Republicans backing Denham’s effort, leaders maneuvering to succeed the retiring Ryan have little interest in incensing the large numbers of GOP lawmakers who, like Trump, back a restrictive stance on the issue.

“It resends power back to Nancy Pelosi,” the House Democratic leader, Rep. Mark Walker, R-N.C., a leading conservative, said of Denham’s plan, since the bipartisan bill could prevail.

“This is absolutely the last thing Republicans looking at midterm elections would want to go forward with,” said Rosemary Jenks, director of government relations for NumbersUSA, which backs immigration restrictions.

The effort to resuscitate the issue comes two months after the Senate rejected several proposals on the subject, seemingly killing it for the year. The focus was on how to help Dreamers, immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as children, in exchange for billions in border security money.

Hundreds of thousands of Dreamers have been temporarily protected from deportation by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, which President Barack Obama started. Trump has halted DACA yet blamed Democrats for the problem. His views have veered wildly but he’s rejected previously proposed deals, though an unlikely change of heart could turn the issue around.

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Denham said he hoped the bipartisan support for his plan will “catch the president’s attention.”

If anything, the administration’s stance seemed as tough as ever. A day after the Supreme Court struck down part of a law making it easier to deport immigrants with violent criminal records, a White House statement said Congress should “close dangerous loopholes,” calling it “a matter of vital public safety.”

Should Ryan ignore Denham’s plan, any House member can invoke a seldom used process and file a so-called discharge petition seeking a vote on the Californian’s proposal. If a majority signs that petition, a vote would have to occur.

Members of the majority party — in this case Republicans — are usually reluctant to make such a move because it’s a direct challenge to party leaders and erodes their control of the chamber.

Even signing such a petition can be problematic for majority party lawmakers. Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., who has co-sponsored Denham’s effort, said he wouldn’t sign a petition demanding a vote, saying, “To me, that just unravels the House.”

Co-sponsors have already received phone calls from leaders expressing “concern over this,” Denham said in an interview.

None of the six lawmakers at a Wednesday news conference including Denham, Aguilar and Hurd said they would file a petition, though some hinted they might. Several Democrats say they’d prefer for a Republican to file the petition, which would give it more clout.

“Unless they force the action with a discharge petition, it’s just election-year posturing,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of the pro-immigration America’s Voice.