WASHINGTON - House conservatives are demanding a vote on a hardline immigration bill, threatening to torpedo an unrelated farm bill unless House GOP leaders meet their ultimatum.
The House is debating the farm bill, with a final vote set for Friday. The legislation is a major priority for House GOP leaders because it would dramatically revamp the food stamp program, part of a broader Republican effort to curb federal welfare programs.
But Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., said his ultraconservative House Freedom Caucus has enough votes to block passage of the farm bill, and they're prepared to use that leverage to force immigration onto the House floor.
"The vast majority of our members believe that we should have a vote on immigration before we have a vote on the farm bill," Meadows said.
A spokeswoman for House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., did not immediately respond to a request for comment. But there was no indication that GOP leaders planned to delay Friday's vote.
Meadows said he's got "more than enough" conservative votes to kill the farm bill but declined to say how many of the 30-plus Freedom Caucus members were prepared to oppose the measure.
GOP leaders already face a tough equation on the farm bill, an $868 billion measure that would set food and farm policy for the next five years.
Democrats are staunchly opposed to the GOP-crafted bill, primarily because of the changes to the food stamp program. The Republican bill would restrict eligibility and require millions of low-income Americans who receive nutritional assistance to work at least 20 hours a week or enroll in a job training program.
Democrats say the new requirements would slash benefits to needy families and the elderly, jeopardizing their ability to put food on the table. The food stamp program is officially known as SNAP, for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
"The GOP wants to cut $23 billion from child nutrition, veteran nutrition, the SNAP program, endangering a lifeline for hungry children, seniors, students," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said at a news conference on Thursday.
With most Democrats expected to oppose the measure, GOP leaders can't lose too many of their own Republican troops or the farm bill will fail.
Meadows says before conservatives can vote "yes" on the farm bill, they want a House floor vote on legislation sponsored by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va. That bill would dramatically cut legal immigration and authorize funding for border security, including construction of President Trump's proposed wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
As a concession to moderate Republicans, it would also provide temporary legal protections for the nearly 700,000 so-called DREAMers, undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children. They have have been in limbo ever since President Trump ended the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program last year.
"We've been promised ... many many months ago that we would have a vote on Goodlatte," Meadows said. "And yet here we are still not dealing with the immigration issue."
Conservatives aren't the only ones squeezing Ryan on immigration. A band of moderate Republicans is also trying to force Ryan to bring up an immigration bill - one that would grant U.S. citizenship to some DREAMers, strengthen border security, and leave the legal immigration system as is.
Moderate Republicans are using what's known as a "discharge petition" to try to force a vote on that softer immigration measure. If a majority of House members sign on to the discharge petition, it would go straight to the floor.
Assuming all Democrats sign the petition, 25 Republicans would need to lend their names to it; as of Thursday afternoon, 20 Republicans had signed on.
By pushing the immigration issue at the same time, the moderates and conservative factions may force a GOP reckoning on an issue that has bedeviled the Republican Party for years.
GOP leaders have made it clear to the moderates that they're not happy about the discharge petition. But so far, they have been unable to offer a solution that would satisfy all factions.
During a party-wide meeting Wednesday morning, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., dressed down the moderate rebels. McCarthy said a bipartisan bill could depress the GOP base and cause Republicans to lose the House, according to Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif., one of the discharge petition leaders.
Despite the scolding from McCarthy, two more Republicans signed onto the petition Wednesday. Denham said he expected more to follow.
"I am more than confident we have all the votes we need today,' the California Republican said Wednesday.
As for the conservatives, McCarthy told reporters on Thursday that he'd already promised the Freedom Caucus they would get a floor vote on the Goodlatte bill in June, so he didn't understand why they were now demanding a vote sooner.
McCarthy and Ryan are now scrambling for a Plan B, but their options are sparse. Ryan has said he wants a bill that President Trump will sign, and he noted the White House opposes the more moderate measure. At the same time, the hardline Goodlatte bill does not have enough votes to pass the House or the Senate.
And lawmakers across the ideological spectrum are tired of waiting. It's been almost six months since the president announced the end of the DACA program that protected the DREAMers.
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