WASHINGTON — When it comes to immigration, House Speaker Paul Ryan may be hoping he can win by losing.
The GOP leader plans to bring up two competing Republican immigration bills next week — and neither seemed likely to pass as of Wednesday.
The first GOP bill is a hardline measure that would cut legal immigration, strengthen border security, and provide temporary legal status to the so-called DREAMers, undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children. President Trump and conservative lawmakers back that proposal, but moderates do not. And it doesn't have enough votes to pass the House.
The second bill is a "compromise" being crafted by GOP leaders and aimed at bridging the divide between the moderates and the conservatives. That bill is still under wraps, but conservatives are wary that it will go too far in granting what they see as "amnesty" to the DREAMers.
"Neither bill is going to pass next week," predicted Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which supports strict limits on immigration. "There clearly isn’t a consensus ... and they’ll just move on to the farm bill or whatever the next thing is," he added.
Ryan insisted Wednesday that GOP leaders were on track to win approval of the leadership bill.
“We now have a bill that represents a compromise,” the Wisconsin Republican told reporters on Wednesday. “We’ve been working hand in glove with the administration on this … so we can come together.”
But other GOP lawmakers said the only way the compromise bill could get enough votes is if the president fully embraces it, and even then it would be difficult.
"Can (Trump) move 100 people because he says he likes it? The answer is no," said Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., chairman of the hardline House Freedom Caucus. "Can he move a dozen or so? Yes."
There were signs on Wednesday the president was open to Ryan's plan. White House adviser Stephen Miller, one of the administration's most hardline voices on immigration, attended a meeting with the conservative Republican Study Committee Wednesday afternoon and discussed the proposals. And Ryan told GOP members Wednesday morning that he talked to the president, who was "excited" about the idea of a compromise, according to a Republican lawmaker who has been in closed-door negotiations between moderates and conservatives.
Final details of that compromise were still being hashed out behind closed doors on Wednesday. And the party's right and left wings were still stuck on a handful of critical details, including the number of DREAMers who would be allowed to receive U.S. citizenship, according to the Republican lawmaker and a second GOP congressman, Rep. Dave Brat, R-Va., who is also familiar with the discussions.
The leadership bill will include a pathway to citizenship for DREAMers who meet certain requirements, both lawmakers said. But there's disagreement over how many DREAMers would be eligible.
Brat, a hardline conservative, said he’s heard the number could be as many as 1.8 million people, a figure he believes is too high. There are approximately 700,000 DREAMers currently protected by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, an Obama-era program that granted temporary legal status and work permits to those brought here illegally as children.
Conservatives like Brat want to see a bill that limits citizenship to the narrower DREAMer population — and they say they don't want that group to get any special treatment — while moderates are pushing for a more generous number.
Another sticking point: Conservatives want the compromise bill to include a mandatory e-verify system, which would require employers to check whether their workers are legally allowed to work in the U.S. Business-friendly Republicans oppose making that mandatory.
Moderates and GOP leaders are pushing for the e-verify issue, as well as revisions to the guest-worker program, to be addressed in a separate package — to be voted on later this summer rather than in next week’s bill.
“I think people are acting in goodwill trying to find a compromise, but that compromise has to work,” said Brat, who said he has serious concerns about the still-emerging compromise bill but is waiting until he sees final text. “If you don’t do e-verify, you’ll have the exact same problem in the next few years.”
The leadership bill is also likely to include at least some increased enforcement priorities outlined by Trump officials in the Department of Homeland Security. It will also address other "pillars" the president has requested as part of any immigration deal: increased border security, ending the visa lottery system and limiting family-based migration to only immediate family members.
Trump nixed the DACA program last year, throwing the DREAMers into limbo. The president gave Congress until March to find a solution, but lawmakers have remained deadlocked on the issue.
The Senate had a series of failed immigration votes in February, and the House has not brought any DACA-related legislation the floor. Federal courts have forced the Trump administration to keep the program running. But moderates and Democrats believe the issue needs a legislative solution ahead of a possible Supreme Court showdown in the fall.
Even if neither bill passes next week, Ryan's decision to schedule the immigration votes helped thwart a rebellion from GOP moderates who had been working with Democrats to force a vote on a series of bills — including one that would have granted citizenship to the DREAMers and had enough votes to pass the House. GOP leaders feared passage of that bill would have ignited a backlash from conservative voters ahead of the 2018 midterm elections.
The bipartisan group was just two signatures away from loosening Ryan's grip on the House floor and forcing the vote, but the rump moderate faction did not get the last two Republicans to sign on in time to trigger the so-called "discharge petition."
Krikorian said Ryan's immediate goal in announcing next week's votes was to kill the discharge petition, not to get an immigration bill through the House.
"Leadership was working with the White House to short circuit the discharge petition," he said. "That’s the entire purpose of the exercise."
Next week's votes could also provides political cover to both moderates and conservatives alike. Lawmakers in each camp can go home and tell their constituents they supported protecting the DREAMers or cracking down on immigration — depending on which message sells in their individual districts.
Asked if Republicans would be vulnerable in the 2018 election if they failed to accomplish anything on immigration, Meadows seemed to suggest a debate in the House would be enough to satisfy voters.
"When the Democrats were in control, they did nothing. So at least we’re trying to make two real attempts to fix it," he said.
Even if one of the bills does pass the House, it is unlikely to make it through the Senate, where legislation requires 60 votes to pass. Republicans have a narrow 51-49 majority, and Sen. John McCain of Arizona has been in Arizona all of 2018 fighting brain cancer.