WASHINGTON – Thanks to the support of two Texas Democrats, a bipartisan coalition of members of the U.S. House is on the cusp of bypassing House Speaker Paul Ryan and moving major immigration bills to the chamber's floor.
On Tuesday morning, two Democrats who represent the Texas border – U.S. Reps. Vicente Gonzalez of McAllen and Filemon Vela of Brownsville – announced they would sign onto an arcane legislative petition that was originally spearheaded by another border member, U.S. Rep. Will Hurd, a Republican from Helotes.
Last month, Hurd and a handful of other House Republicans, frustrated by the lack of movement on immigration, initiated an obscure legislative tactic called a discharge petition in an attempt to bypass their chamber's committees and GOP leadership. The petition would force a series of votes on several bills that address immigration issues, including the legal status of "Dreamers" — young undocumented immigrants who came to the country as minors and have been granted reprieve from deportation and two-year work permits under the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program.
The discharge petition quickly gained dozens of backers, including most House Democrats. Three Texas Democrats representing the border – Gonzalez, Vela and U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar of Laredo – withheld their support from the petition, citing concerns that it could lead to legislation passing that would clear the way for the construction of a border wall.
With Vela and Gonzalez signing on, the petition's tally grows to 215 names, just three short of the 218 needed to force votes on the U.S. House floor. Hurd is the only Texas Republican to sign on.
“By signing this discharge petition, I do so with the intent of giving 800,000 young people – young Americans – peace of mind and the ability to remain in the only country they call home,” said Gonzalez. “Let me be clear, I will not accept a DACA fix that includes border wall funding. It’s unfortunate that we are at this nexus, but the ball is now in the Republicans’ court. And as such, I ask them: ‘What will be your next move?’”
"In consultation with Dreamers and their parents, clergy, and Bishop Daniel Flores, I have decided to sign the discharge petition so that Dreamers can get the vote they are requesting,” Vela concurred. “I will vote for a clean Dream Act, but not for any measure that includes border wall funding. Republican moderates claim they have the votes to move their discharge petition forward... Let’s see it.”
Late Tuesday afternoon, Cuellar issued a statement indicating he would hold firm on his current position.
“I need a commitment from Democratic leadership saying that they will not support a border wall in exchange for Dreamers," he said. "The construction of a physical wall is an expensive and inefficient use of our taxpayers’ hard-earned dollars. My support for Dreamers and a DACA fix has not wavered, but there are more cost-efficient ways of protecting our borders by increasing technology and employing additional border security personnel."
"As I’ve said in the past, I cannot stand behind building a wall—a 14th century solution to a 21st century problem.”
That leaves Cuellar as the lone Democratic holdout. But even if he were to sign on to the petition, the coalition would still need another two Republican votes to move forward.
The initial group pushing for the the petition was made up of just Republicans – mostly members like Hurd, who are from diverse districts and are in tough re-election battles, and other Republicans who are retiring. In the following weeks, most members of the Democratic caucus followed suit and signed on, allowing the coalition to close in on a majority of the chamber.
Capitol Hill is bracing for a conservative backlash to the tactic. Immigration is the most contentious issue within the GOP conference and a floor vote on these measures – which include a hardline approach to Democratic-favored policies – is sure to pit the conservative wing of the House Republican conference, known as the Freedom Caucus, against members like Hurd. That's put the chamber's Republican leadership in the crosshairs of a deeply divided conference. GOP members are scheduled to meet Thursday morning to address the issue.