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Immigration showdown puts Ryan’s job in peril

Paul Ryan is struggling to stop an immigration showdown in the House, as his Republican Conference degenerates into an all-out war that could put his speakership on the line.

The Wisconsin Republican pleaded with his conference Tuesday to come together after a tumultuous few days of infighting. The only way Republicans will keep their majority this fall is to work as a team, he argued, urging both wings of the party to compromise on a path forward.

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But that call to unity fell on deaf ears.

A group of moderates frustrated with the lack of action to protect Dreamers from deportation is expected to collect enough signatures to force bipartisan immigration votes in the coming days, according to lawmakers and aides tracking the effort. And conservatives who oppose those bills are threatening to hold Republican leaders — starting with Ryan — responsible if they don’t stop it.

“If we run an amnesty bill out of a Republican House, I think all options are on the table,” Freedom Caucus member Scott Perry (R-Pa.) told reporters Monday night when asked whether Ryan could remain speaker if the so-called discharge petition succeeds.

“If leadership doesn’t stop it, they would be violating their own word, which was the Hastert rule, majority of the majority,” agreed Rep. Dave Brat (R-Va.), referring to an unofficial Republican policy of not holding votes on matters that aren’t backed by more than half of the conference.

Conservatives are so desperate to stop the discharge petition that they’re suggesting Ryan strong-arm moderates to get them to back down — though they decried ex-Speaker John Boehner’s use of such tactics against them in the past. Leaders should consider revoking National Republican Congressional Committee financial help or other perks to keep moderates from forcing the issue, several have said. Such a move would be devastating for those centrists, many of whom hail from swing districts targeted by Democrats.

“I know when I voted against a rule, [leadership] threatened to take away all travel, they threatened to take away NRCC contributions,” said Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows (R-N.C.). “Most of those people who are on the discharge petition are very much closer to leadership than members of the Freedom Caucus, so I don’t see them” defying leadership.

One conservative lawmaker who was kicked off the whip team several years ago for defying leadership told Ryan, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) that they should remove moderates who support the discharge petition from the current whip team. GOP leaders said nothing in response, according to a lawmaker in the room.

Paul Ryan and Kevin McCarthy are pictured. | AP Photo

“You’ve got people who are on the whip team who have signed the discharge petition and get the lion’s share of the NRCC money — and there is no repercussions for that,” the conservative lawmaker who asked not to be identified later told Politico. “They’re undermining the leadership’s ability to govern.”

That suggestion has irked some of the lawmakers who signed the petition. One of them, Rep. Ryan Costello (R-Pa.), said the notion of punishing members who don’t fall in line with leadership “is exactly what [Freedom Caucus members] complain about when somebody gets taken off of a committee” for bucking leaders.

“We don’t hold leadership responsible when we don’t like something the Freedom Caucus does,” Costello added.

The clash comes as Republicans face a daunting election this fall. A Democratic wave threatens to imperil their majority, yet the intraparty immigration squabble is almost certain to occupy the summer, distracting from the campaign message GOP hopefuls are looking to push.

Ryan also has found himself inside a pressure cooker, with a small faction of Republicans on the Hill and in the White House whispering that he should step down now rather than serve out his term as speaker. If the discharge petition succeeds, it would only further weaken Ryan’s hand.

That’s one of the reasons some Republicans who support the idea in theory have held back from signing the petition. Rep. Tom Rooney (R-Fla.) told Politico on Monday that he didn’t want to put Ryan in a bad situation so was unlikely to join his colleagues in forcing the issue. At this moment, however, no other lawmaker would likely have the 218 votes it would take to become speaker.

Ryan, who opposes the discharge petition because he says it empowers Democrats, was close to halting it last week. On Thursday, several moderates agreed that they would hold off on collecting the final signatures to force the issue. In return, the speaker would work with them and the Freedom Caucus to allow a vote on a conservative immigration bill in addition to a measure more palatable to moderates.

But Freedom Caucus members, while claiming they want to negotiate, have said they would not allow such a process unless the second bill meets their own parameters and is supported by a majority of Republican lawmakers. A bipartisan bill like the one moderates are seeking, they argue, runs counter to the results of the 2016 election.

The Freedom Caucus also tanked a farm bill over the immigration matter on Friday, angering many of its colleagues and inspiring some to join the moderates’ rebellion.

At the same time, leaders have not reached out to moderates to clarify what the second bill would look like, making them feel as though the pitch for a two-vote deal was disingenuous. And during a whip meeting Monday night, Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) said the House would certainly vote on the conservative immigration bill sought by conservatives in June but did not affirm that legislation backed by the moderates would also get a vote, raising skepticism among centrists.

That lack of a plan has led moderates to forge ahead with their discharge petition. Several who are about to sign on said they want to speak personally with Ryan first to give him a heads-up.

One of those leaning toward signing this week is Rep. Tom Reed of New York, a staunch leadership ally.

“I am very interested in breaking the gridlock on this issue, and right now the only tool I see available is for me to deploy the discharge petition,” he said in an interview. “This needs to be addressed before we go on break.”

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer is pictured. | Getty Images

Conservatives, meanwhile, have continued to say they’re willing to work with moderates to come up with an immigration bill that would get a majority of the conference’s backing. But GOP leaders and moderates don’t believe them, because negotiations have been ongoing for months without a breakthrough.

To beat back the petition, conservatives have suggested GOP leaders put the far right’s immigration proposal on the floor. That plan procedurally would squash the petition for a time. But GOP leaders note that moderates could — and have vowed to — block any standalone vote on a conservative bill that doesn’t also include a vote on their own ideas. Procedurally, all that moderates would have to do is vote with Democrats to kill the rule governing debate for the conservatives’ bill.

Conservatives, however, don’t believe the moderates and are encouraging GOP leaders to call their bluff.

“Prove it,” Meadows said.

Following Ryan’s plea for unity, Meadows has gone out of his way to tell members, aides and reporters that conservatives are not talking about a “motion to vacate the chair” against Ryan, a procedural move that would force a vote on whether he should remain speaker. However, some of his conservative colleagues have clearly considered the idea.

If it came to that, however, most of the conference would probably back Ryan, his allies say. Most of the conference understands that the speaker is in an impossible position, they argue.

“It seems there is always a segment of our conference that has a problem with leadership no matter what, and you have to ask: Is it really related to policy, and issues like immigration?” said Rep. Rodney Davis (R-Ill.). “Or is it more related to their own personal ambitions to get into leadership someday?”

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