Vulnerable Republicans in California have a way to stifle Democratic criticisms over Dreamers before the June 5 primary — they can tout a deal involving Dreamers without having to cast any votes until after the polls close.
Republican congressmen regarded as most at risk in this year's election have been trying to force the House to vote on four immigration bills involving Dreamers and increased border security.
They're five signatures short of the 218 House members they need to force those votes. But because the House is out until the afternoon of June 5 — the day California voters go to the polls — nothing will happen on immigration reform during the last days of the primary campaign.
That removes a big talking point Democrats and even hardline Republicans hoped to use against incumbents such as Reps. Jeff Denham, R-Calif., Steve Knight, R-Calif., or David Valadao, R-Calif., who have been instrumental in pushing for changes.
"Vagueness goes a long way in politics," said Bob Mulholland, a member of the Democratic National Committee. "Voters have a natural tendency to have hope, so if a politician says something, people want to believe they'll come through."
That hope will persist through the primary, even though "after the election they might feel stabbed in the back," Mulholland said.
Denham has received national headlines and television interviews as he's led the effort, increasing his visibility during a crowded primary for his seat.
He vehemently denied any suggestion he's doing this for political reasons, or for any reason but a sincere desire to get action on Dreamers and immigration in the House. Dreamers is the term for people who came into the country illegally as minors.
"We are in a position now, where we've taken an issue that was dead in 2018 and revived it, and I think we've got a real opportunity to get some law passed that would actually have a permanent fix for Dreamers," Denham said Thursday.
Valadao has appeared at press conferences supporting the effort and was one of the first people to sign the discharge petition to force the House to vote. Knight signed soon afterward.
All three represent districts with large Latino populations that Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton won in 2016.
Rob Stutzman, a Sacramento-based GOP consultant, said Democratic criticismat the moment "rings hollow."
"If Denham and others want a political benefit from this, they need it for November, not June," Stutzman said, since there's little risk the Republicans would lose in the primary.
The other two Republicans in Clinton-won districts who are running for reelection, Reps. Mimi Walters and Dana Rohrabacher, have not signed the petition.
Rohrabacher has spoken against a special pathway to citizenship for Dreamers and is unlikely to sign. Walters has expressed support for Dreamers but her office did not return requests for her position on the effort.
Democrats are trying to find ways to hammer Republicans over the effort while it remains in political limbo. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee sent an email Thursday with the subject line, "Vulnerable Republicans Leave Town Without Immigration Deal to Protect DREAMers." It said the Republicans had made "empty promises" to get the required amount of signatures this week.
“It’s pathetic that House Republicans left town without moving forward with legislation to protect DREAMers — and it’s inexcusable that they were too weak to secure a deal to even debate immigration legislation,” said Javier Gamboa of the DCCC.
Meanwhile, every California Democrat has signed the petition, including a few that signed at the last possible moment Thursday morning. There is little political risk involved for those Democrats.
Denham has said repeatedly that he has the signatures but did not say he would have them the week of May 20 as the DCCC email suggested.
He has hinted that some members are holding off as they hope House Republican leadership will cut a deal to bring immigration legislation to the floor on their own. Leaders of the petition effort, House leadership and the conservative House Freedom Caucus have met repeatedly to work out the details of such a deal, and are expected to talk again when the House returns June 5.
On Thursday, Denham said talks had been productive, but negotiators still hadn't reached a "written deal," partly because he did not want to back down on a special pathway to citizenship for Dreamers, which conservatives oppose. Due to the rules, there are only two days before the November election that a petition-forced immigration vote can happen: June 25 and July 23.
In order to get a vote on June 25, the 218 signatures are needed by the afternoon of June 7, according to Denham.