WASHINGTON (AP) — House Republicans are considering next steps on two immigration bills after GOP leaders persuaded moderate Republicans to drop their renegade effort to force votes on legislation that would have protected young "Dreamer" immigrants with a path to citizenship.
Instead, leaders reached a deal with moderates and conservatives that will allow two votes on other bills, starting as soon as next week.
Moderates were promised a vote on a compromise immigration plan, which remains a work in progress but will likely include a citizenship pathway for the young immigrants who have been living in the country illegally since they were children. Conservatives were guaranteed a vote on their favored approach, which provides a path to legal status but not citizenship.
With a truce between the GOP's factions, House Republicans were set to meet behind closed doors Wednesday to assess the process forward on an issue that has divided the party for years — and that leaders worried would damage the GOP ahead of the election season.
A spokeswoman for Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., AshLee Strong, announced the decision late Tuesday after a bargaining session with the lawmakers from the GOP's conservative and moderate factions ended without agreement on a single package all sides could support.
Moderates had been collecting signatures on a petition drive to would force a vote. Strong said the decision to consider two bills would avert the petition drive "and resolve the border security and immigration issues."
Leaders feared if the moderates had been able to collect the 218 votes needed, mostly from Democrats, it would embarrass Republicans by passing a bill that conservatives decried as amnesty for the young immigrants.
Rep. Carlos Curbelo, R-Fla., a leader of the moderates' petition drive, credited his group for forcing the issue to the fore.
"Our goal has always been to force the House to debate and consider meaningful immigration reform, and today we're one step closer," Curbelo said.
Conservatives were also pleased, certain that neither bill would necessarily win enough votes to pass, but confident the outcome would show the political strength of their preferred approach, a bill from Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va.
Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., a leader of the conservative Freedom Caucus, said even if the bill fails, voting would show "we can just amend the Goodlatte bill" and try again.
Strong said votes on the two bills would happen next week. But Meadows said a vote on the compromise plan may slip to the end of the month as talks continue crafting the legislation.
For weeks, the party's two wings have hunted for ways to provide a compromise that would provide the citizenship pathway and also bolster border security, but have failed to find middle ground.
The House ended Tuesday's session as moderates fell short of their stated goal of having 218 signatures — a majority of the chamber — on a petition that would force votes on other immigration bills that GOP leaders oppose. They had promised to do that by Tuesday in order to trigger those votes later this month.
Instead, the centrists accumulated the names of all 193 Democrats but just 23 Republicans — two short of the number required.
GOP leaders have strongly opposed the rarely used petition tactic, asserting those votes would probably produce a liberal-leaning bill backed by Democrats and just a smattering of Republicans. They've actively lobbied other moderates to not sign the petition, and in talks bargainers have sought legislation both sides could back or alternatively a way for each faction to get a vote on legislation they could support.
The alternative measure is still under discussion. But a Republican familiar with the discussions said it would likely be based on a proposal by moderates that would grant the Dreamers a chance for citizenship but also provide the $25 billion President Donald Trump wants for his border wall with Mexico. It would also hew close Trump's ideas for ending the diversity visa and impose curbs on legal immigration for some immigrant family members, changes that conservatives want. That Republican spoke on condition of anonymity to describe private talks.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., criticized the GOP approach.
"If Republicans plan to use Dreamers as a way to advance @realDonaldTrump's xenophobic, anti-immigrant agenda, they will get a fight from House Democrats," Pelosi said in a tweet.
Any compromise bill would probably also include provisions changing how immigrant children are separated from their families at the border, aides said.
Trump's recent clampdown on people entering the U.S. illegally has resulted in hundreds of children being separated from their families and a public relations black eye for the administration. No law requires those children to be taken from their parents. A 2-decade-old court settlement requires those who are separated to be released quickly to relatives or qualified programs. But the White House has sought to change that and Republicans are seeking language to make it easier to keep the families together longer, said several Republicans. Advocates for immigrants have said the Goodlatte bill would allow minors to be detained longer than is now currently allowed.
As talks between the House GOP's factions continued, leaders worked to derail the moderates' petition. As part of the effort, party leaders promised votes to later this year on a bill dealing with migrant agricultural workers and requirements that employers use a government online system to verify workers' citizenship, according to three aides familiar with the negotiations. The Republicans spoke on condition of anonymity to describe private talks.
Congress has been forced to deal with the immigration after Trump last year terminated the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA.
Hundreds of thousands of young immigrants have benefited from DACA or could qualify for it, but risked of deportation as the program ended, though federal court orders have kept the program functioning for now.
Senate efforts to pass immigration legislation failed earlier this year.