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Immigration fight roils House Republicans in unexpected ways

As the GOP fights with itself over immigration, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy urges the party to honor the wishes of the party's far-right base.
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy leaves the House Chamber after the House approved a stopgap spending bill to keep the federal government open, Sept. 30, 2015, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (Photo by Andrew Harnik/AP)
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy leaves the House Chamber after the House approved a stopgap spending bill to keep the federal government open, Sept. 30, 2015, on Capitol Hill in Washington. 

The latest fight over immigration policy appeared to reach its end point in March. Congressional Democrats offered Donald Trump at least six bipartisan compromises on the issue, including a package that would've funded his beloved border-wall proposal, but the president rejected each of them, insisting he needed both wall funding and drastic cuts to legal immigration.

But last week, a group of House Republicans shook up the debate in an unexpected way, unveiling a discharge petition -- in defiance of congressional GOP leaders and the White House -- that would force floor votes on a variety of measures, including bipartisan protections for Dreamers.

At first, the gambit looks like little more than theater. After all, discharge petitions almost always fail, and this one would need 25 House Republican votes, along with all the House Democrats. That's an unrealistic goal, right?

Perhaps not. This week, the measure received its 19th and 20th signatories from GOP members, and as a result, as the Washington Post reported, the party's leaders are suddenly scrambling.

House Republican leaders made a full-court press Wednesday to forestall a GOP immigration rebellion that they fear could derail their legislative agenda and throw their effort to hold the majority in doubt.The effort began in a closed-door morning meeting where Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) warned that a freewheeling immigration debate could have sharp political consequences. It continued in the evening, when the leaders of a petition effort that would sidestep were summoned to a room with House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), McCarthy and three other top leaders.

At this point, the party doesn't appear to have a specific solution. Republican leaders, when they're not pleading with their colleagues not to sign the discharge petition, are exploring alternative measures to offer their rebelling members, even as some rank-and-file GOP lawmakers say they might derail the House's farm bill unless they get their way on immigration.

But what struck me as especially significant was the nature of the pitch House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) made to his conference during the weekly meeting yesterday. Politico  reported:

...McCarthy cautioned that "we cannot disrupt ourselves," saying in no uncertain terms that a "discharge petition" to force votes on such a controversial issue six months out from an election would do just that. Passing a bipartisan immigration bill that the base hates, McCarthy argued, would depress Republican turnout, and possibly cost the party the House.GOP "intensity levels are still not there, and discharge petitions release the power of the floor that the American people gave us the responsibly to hold," McCarthy said, according to the source present. "When you release that power, the majority goes to [House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi]."He added: "If you want to depress intensity, this is the No. 1 way to do it. We can debate internally but don't let someone else like Nancy decide our future."

Look, I realize it's an election year, Republicans are nervous, and the lines between politics and policy can get blurry. But Donald Trump has spent months saying that Democrats have deliberately rejected immigration agreements because they prefer to play politics with the issue. Congress could pass a meaningful solution, the president has argued, but Dems would rather use this as a campaign cudgel than solve the problem.

Trump's rhetoric has long been ridiculous, but this week, it's also more than a little ironic. The Republican House Majority Leader apparently told his members that bipartisan immigration plans must be rejected, regardless of merit, because the "intensity" of the GOP base is paramount.

Who's playing politics with immigration?