WASHINGTON – House Speaker Paul Ryan found himself in a tight political spot Wednesday as Republican leaders announced plans to push an immigration bill that appeals to the most conservative wing of his party but will alienate moderates.
Ryan and other GOP leaders said Wednesday they planned to move ahead with legislation that would slash legal immigration and give only temporary legal protections for the DREAMers, among other provisions. President Trump endorsed that bill Wednesday — but he also endorsed a rival Senate proposal that doesn’t go as far.
The competing and conflicting pressures on Ryan became clear moments after the Wisconsin Republican outlined the GOP immigration strategy.
Immigration is “the defining moment for this speaker,” House Freedom Caucus Chair Mark Meadows, R-N.C., said Wednesday. "If he gets it wrong, it will have consequences for him, but it will also have consequences for the rest of the Republican Party.”
That warning shot from Meadows — who helped push Ryan’s predecessor, John Boehner, into retirement — highlights how explosive the looming House debate will be for Republicans. The Senate is debating immigration, and it's unlikely to pass legislation that would dramatically restrict legal immigration or initiate a wave of deportations.
Ryan's spokeswoman did not respond to questions about Meadows' warnings.
Meadows and other conservatives made it clear they will accept nothing short of the hard-line House immigration bill introduced by Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, and Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee.
That proposal would cut legal immigration by at least 25% and crack down on “sanctuary cities” that do not fully cooperate with federal immigration enforcement efforts. It would require employers to use the E-Verify system to check the immigration status of job applicants; provide funding to hire 10,000 federal immigration agents; and cut at least 200,000 green cards a year given to foreigners.
In exchange for those new restrictions, it would grant temporary legal status to fewer than 800,000 DREAMers — requiring them to renew their protections every three years — but no opportunity to earn citizenship.
“If we get this bill passed through the House and it ultimately gets to the president’s desk, he would sign that bill,” House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., said Wednesday. “We are finally at least working on a way to come together to address this problem.”
Trump gave a thumbs up to the Goodlatte-McCaul bill Wednesday. It includes many enforcement measures beyond the priorities the president outlined.
"I remain encouraged by developments in the House toward advancing legislation from Chairmen Goodlatte and McCaul," Trump said in a statement.
The bill is a non-starter in the Senate, and it's not even clear whether it could pass the House. Democrats fiercely oppose it — as do some Republican moderates.
"I have a lot of problems with that bill," said Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla. "I don’t think that’s a ... viable vehicle to get us to the finish line."
Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Pa., said the Goodlatte-McCaul bill could end up increasing illegal immigration because it would impose so many new restrictions on legal entry to the U.S.
Trump also endorsed a less-restrictive immigration bill Wednesday, sponsored by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, that would commit billions of dollars to border security, limit family-based migration and provide a path to citizenship to about 1.8 million undocumented "DREAMers" brought to the country as children.
The DREAMer issue was a key factor in a three-day government shutdown in January.
Grassley's bill would authorize $25 billion toward completion of a 10-year border security plan, including a wall between the USA and Mexico. It would provide for additional personnel for border control; limit family-based immigration to the nuclear family; and phase out the visa lottery system. The Grassley bill would provide a 12-year path to citizenship for the DREAMers who have been allowed to stay in the USA under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
In his statement Wednesday, Trump said, "The Grassley bill accomplishes the four pillars of the White House Framework: a lasting solution on DACA, ending chain migration, cancelling the visa lottery, and securing the border through building the wall and closing legal loopholes. I am asking all senators, in both parties, to support the Grassley bill and to oppose any legislation that fails to fulfill these four pillars."
The Grassley bill would go further than what Trump has outlined. It would allow for quicker deportations of people caught entering the country, including minors, and people who overstay their visas.
Meadows and others said the Grassley measure isn't tough enough.
Meadows said there are no active conversations about replacing Ryan as speaker, but there were discussions about how Republican leadership needed to push harder to get to the required 218 votes to pass the Goodlatte-McCaul bill. Conservative activists hammered Republicans and the president for supporting the Grassley bill.
“People who supported Trump from the beginning, they’re upset, they feel betrayed, and they don’t feel like President Trump is keeping his promise on this particular issue,” said Jenny Beth Martin, who heads Tea Party Patriots, a grass-roots conservative group.
Trump announced in September that he would end President Obama's program that protects some DREAMers from deportation, and he gave Congress until March 5 to come up with a legislative solution. After that, about 1,000 participants a day will begin losing legal protections and work permits, making them vulnerable to deportation.
In separate cases, two federal judges ordered the administration to continue processing DACA renewals for those in the program, regardless of the March 5 deadline.
Last year, Trump got behind a proposal from hard-line immigration Sens. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., and David Perdue, R-Ga., to overhaul the focus of the U.S. immigration system, which favors immigrants who have family ties over those who must prove they would contribute to the economy.
That bill would dramatically reduce the 1.1 million green cards issued each year by allowing U.S. citizens to sponsor only their spouse or child, eliminating diversity lottery visas and limiting the number of refugees offered permanent residency in the country.
In January, Trump was open to a more moderate plan crafted by Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., that included $2.7 billion in border security improvements, eliminated the visa lottery and offered a pathway to citizenship to DREAMers.
Contributing: Deirdre Shesgreen