If House votes on immigration fail Thursday — which lawmakers said is a real possibility — vulnerable Republicans are ready to defy their party establishment and work with Democrats to revive the effort.
Votes on two Republican-authored immigration bills are expected late Thursday. One is a compromise pushed by GOP leaders. The other is championed by staunch conservatives. Supporters of both bills were struggling Wednesday to round up enough support.
Republicans facing difficult re-election fights need to show constituents they're sensitive to the plight of Dreamers as well as families who have crossed the border seeking asylum, which is included in the compromise bill. So if that bill is defeated, they're open to joining Democrats to force new votes on immigration.
Reps. Jeff Denham, R-California, and Carlos Curbelo, R-Florida, who have led the Republicans' immigration reform effort, told McClatchy all options were open if the compromise bill failed, including forcing a vote without leadership approval. The compromise includes a path to citizenship for Dreamers, those who came to the country illegally as children.
"The Dreamers have stepped up, and done what their government asked them to do, so I'm not going to take no for an answer," Denham said. "If the Speaker can't find a way to get 218 votes, then I'm going to find a way to work with Democrats and get a solution."
Such a move, which would have to involve as few as 25 House Republicans and all 193 Democrats to be effective, would be a clear rebuke of House GOP leaders as well as President Donald Trump.
Though Trump halted the separation of families at the border with an executive order Wednesday, he's still calling for a congressional fix. House leadership has remained silent on a plan to fix the situation if both bills fail. The Senate is considering multiple bills that address the issue narrowly.
The crisis had many high-profile Republicans crying out in public disgust, including one veteran Republican strategist who actually called on voters to elect Democratic majorities in the House and Senate in November.
"The first step to a season of renewal in our land is the absolute and utter repudiation of Trump and his vile enablers in the 2018 election by electing Democratic majorities," Steve Schmidt, a former top adviser to President George W. Bush, the 2008 presidential campaign of Sen. John McCain and the California gubernatorial campaign of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, said in a series of tweets. "I do not say this as an advocate of a progressive agenda. I say it as someone who retains belief in DEMOCRACY and decency."
Calls to send more Democrats to the House over immigration problems are disastrous for Republican reformers, including Denham, Curbelo, David Valadao, R-California and Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Florida, who are considered vulnerable in November elections and have huge Hispanic populations in their districts.
Those calls are also troublesome for Republican leaders, whose chance for holding on to a House majority is threatened the longer the family separation issue stays in the limelight. Democrats need a net gain of 23 seats to win the majority.
House leadership's understanding is that once a vote on the bills occurs — even if both fail — that Denham and his allies would drop any further effort to push another immigration reform vote, according to multiple leadership aides.
The bills due for House votes are generally referred to as the compromise bill and the Goodlatte bill, after sponsor Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Virginia. Both include funding for Trump's border wall and other border security, cuts to legal immigration and allows the detainment of families who cross the border illegally together, but only the compromise bill includes a path to citizenship for Dreamers.
“The commitment both sides made was that the House would vote on both the Goodlatte bill and the four pillar compromise bill, and as a result, the discharge petition would not be pursued," said AshLee Strong, spokeswoman for House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin. Such a petition would force a House vote on other legislation.
Neither bill is likely to get any Democratic support, due to the cuts to legal immigration, funding for Trump's wall and how it addresses family separation. Democrats favor solutions to the family separation issue that do not involve the detention of families.
Several members of the conservative House Freedom Caucus said Wednesday they either would not support the bill or were still reviewing it, including Reps. Scott Perry, R-Pennsylvania, Matt Gaetz, R-Florida, Dave Brat, R-Virginia, and Raul Labrador, R-Idaho.
Freedom Caucus leaders were involved in drafting the compromise bill but still called for a vote on the more conservative bill Goodlatte bill.
Trump has said he would sign either bill, though leadership was hoping he would advocate for the compromise bill to convince members who are on the fence to vote for it.
Opposition from the Freedom Caucus' entire three dozen members plus the Democrats would mean certain defeat for the bill. Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-Louisiana, who started evaluating Republican support Tuesday night, would not say Wednesday if he thought the compromise bill would pass.
"I'm working to address questions that members have," Scalise said.